Obituary for an octopus

She lived in Discovery Bay for six months beginning in May. I didn’t see a lot of her in the summer, even when I made special trips to that end of the zoo to check out this new attraction. She was probably hiding in her cave, something wild octopuses often do in the shallow seas they call home. But by fall — because I was scheduled to volunteer in D-Bay more often, because the crowds had died down or because she had just settled into her tank — she became the entertaining sure thing in that part of the zoo. There were always a few people gathered round the tank, and most of them wanted to linger and talk about her for more than just a minute or two.

Minnesota Zoo octopus posingBefore the octopus arrived, we had a series of cuttlefish in here — just another type of cephalopod (Greek for “head-footed”). So a lot of their cool facts applied to her, too: their ability to change color and squirt ink, their three hearts and blue blood, their excellent vision and poignantly short one- or two-year life span. Where the cuttlefish’s eight arms and two tentacles are clustered near the front of its head, though, the octopus has its arms farther back and a mantle — the sac that holds all its organs — in front of its face. Every part of an octopus is squishy except for its beak, which it uses for cracking open shellfish; combined with their high intelligence, this makes them good escape artists able to squeeze through small gaps. Male octopuses have one differently shaped arm — the “business arm” of reproduction, if you will — that this one apparently didn’t, sealing her identity as female. For either gender, reproduction marks the end of a life that’s extremely short anyway.

common octopus swimmingOctopuses swim differently from cuttlefish, too; there’s a lot more arm involvement, and those arms are covered with suction cups that make walking on the tank-side possible. This girl was a graceful and entertaining swimmer (though I could never decide whether she was doing the crawl or the breast-stroke) and an accomplished tank-walker, too.

white octopus

So yes, I’m writing about her in the past tense. She’d been looking whiter in recent weeks, which worried a regular guest or two who’d been paying attention, though that may have been a coincidence. On Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, the volunteers’ day began with a visit from aquarist Becky, who told us the octopus had died two days before, after “politely” refusing meals of shrimp for the previous week, and that the cause was definitely old age. The entertaining cephalopod came to us from the Mall of America’s aquarium, where she’d lived for four months. Wild-caught off the coast of Florida, she arrived full-grown in Minnesota and had to be at least 18 months old by now. Becky told us we’ll be getting a giant Pacific octopus by  late spring, in a new and larger tank, as part of a D-Bay makeover. That one will probably get twice as big as the common octopus we had (the Monterey Bay Aquarium says their Pacific is six feet across, “tentacle to tentacle”) and live twice as long, but I don’t think I could possibly enjoy it twice as much as I’ve enjoyed this dear departed one.