"It got delayed in Memphis, and I had to go pick it up at Dulles Airport at about 7 pm," Alan Peters tells me. But the important thing was that he was there on time, because his January 21st delivery wasn't just any cargo. It was precious cargo—a three-pound, two-and-a-half-year-old giant Pacific octopus.
The soon-to-be-named octopus is the newest addition to the Smithsonian National Zoo's invertebrate collection. According to Peters, curator of invertebrates, the zoo typically has one of the creatures on site at any given time. (They are solitary creatures, so having more than one in a tank, says Peters, "would not be pretty.") Giant Pacific octopus have a lifespan of three to five years, and the zoo usually gets them when they are two and a half to three and a half years old.
What's incredible is the amount of growing they do in their short lives. Peters explains that the octopus come from eggs the size of cooked grains of rice. In the first two years of life, they grow to maybe one pound, and by the third year, they can be about 10 pounds. Then, by the fourth and fifth year, they grow to 50 to 70 pounds. The largest octopus he can remember being at the zoo grew to 50 pounds and measured 12 feet when laid out from tip of arm to tip of arm. "On record, there are some quite large," says Peters. "120 pounds."
After all, the giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus species in the world. Its Northern Pacific habitat sprawls from southern California, north along the coast and south along Russia to Japan. The cephalopod is found anywhere from shallow coastal waters to depths of 1,500 meters. It controls the color, pattern and even texture of its skin for camouflage to hide itself in its sandy or rocky surroundings.
Peters and his colleagues are excited about the zoo's new octopus because it allows them to continue their now seven-year behavior study. Since exploration seems to be a very natural for the animal, the researchers are trying to find ways to offer the animal some interesting things to do while it's in its tank. They will introduce enrichment objects (basically, anything from adding shells or other "furniture" to the tank to changing the water current) and observing the effects on the animal's behavior.
The zoo has installed an "Octopus Cam" in the animal's tank, in the Invertebrate Exhibit, so you may notice the enrichment objects. Also, the zoo recommends tuning in at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. EST, when the octopus is fed shrimp, fish and crabs.
Peters calls the giant Pacific octopus the 'giant panda' of invertebrates. "It’s a very large, recognizable animal and hopefully gets people’s attention so that they’ll notice the other smaller, bizarre but interesting invertebrates, from stick insects to spiders to snails," says Peters. "They may not be as charismatic, but they are crucially important to biological processes from pollination to decomposition in the ocean. Ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of animals in the world are invertebrates, so we hope that it will draw attention to that."