Last night, a strange video appeared on Twitter: it looks like some sort of deep sea bloom — but then a tiny octopus squirts out and zooms away, changing colors from white to purple. What exactly are we seeing here?
The video, posted by the Virginia Aquarium, shows a baby Caribbean reef octopus (Octopus briareus) no bigger than a pinky nail hatching from a bundle of eggs. As for the color change, these octopuses are known to be masters of disguise. “It was going into an instant camouflage as soon as it came out of the egg,” says Julie Levans, senior curator at the aquarium. These octopuses use specialized muscles to open and close little sacs of pigment in their skin called chromatophores — and this little guy was probably responding to the black tabletop beneath its tank.
The baby octopus’s mom arrived at the aquarium about six months ago, and four months later, she laid between 100 and 200 eggs. Since this softball-sized species is solitary and also sometimes cannibalistic, this octopus lives alone at the aquarium. The eggs themselves weren’t surprising — female octopuses typically lay eggs. “What did catch us by surprise was the fact that they were fertilized,” Levans says.
It turns out that these octopuses can store sperm for up to 100 days — and Levans suspects that the octopus must have mated in the wild with at least one male before she arrived at the aquarium. Then, the octopus attached her egg bundles to rocks in her tank, where she flushed them with water to keep oxygen flowing past them, and massaged them with her arms. Depending on the water temperature, incubations can take from 50 to 90 days.
Somehow, this tiny bundle of eggs fell off the rocks, and the aquarium’s team recovered it and put them in a tank. At 4PM on February 6th, the eggs started hatching. Since then, the rest of the eggs in that video and several still attached to the rocks have hatched, and the team hopes more babies will keep popping out over the next couple of days. The survival rate is pretty low for baby octopuses, Levans says — sometimes only one or two will survive out of an entire clutch of eggs. But the team plans to raise whatever babies do survive and add them to the exhibit at their own aquarium, and possibly send them to other accredited aquariums as well.
The prognosis for the momma octopus doesn’t look as good. After she’s seen her eggs through to hatching, she’ll probably die. That’s common for this species that typically lives only up to one-and-a-half years. “Their whole goal in life is to mate and make babies,” Levan says. “When an octopus female lays eggs, we know that’s the end of her lifespan.”
But thanks to this octopus, and the video of her eggs, thousands of people have witnessed a mysterious part of the octopus life cycle. “And it looks pretty adorable,” Levans says. She hopes this will remind people how important it is to protect the creatures that live in our oceans, from baby octopuses to sharks and sea turtles. “We need to protect our environment that we live in.”