Features

Published: Tuesday August 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday August 5, 2014 MYT 7:09:51 AM

This Octo-mum wins best mother award!

Meet the real Octo-mum, who spends more than four years brooding her eggs – a new world record in the animal kingdom.

If someone were to create an award for “mother of the year” in the animal kingdom, a remarkably dedicated eight-limbed mum from the dark and frigid depths of the Pacific Ocean would be a winning contender.

Scientists described how the female of an octopus species that dwells almost a mile below the sea surface spends about 4½ years brooding her eggs, protecting them vigilantly until they hatch while foregoing any food for herself. 

It's the longest known egg-brooding period for any animal, the researchers wrote in their paper, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE on July 30.

Devoted: The record-setting Octomum (above), an octopus of the deep-sea species Graneledone boreopacifica, guarding her brood of about 160 eggs that are attached to the rock wall. She spent 4½ years brooding the clutch, not eating at all during the entire time. Below, a view of Octomum clinging to the rockface where she laid her eggs. – Reuters

Using a remote-controlled submarine to monitor the deep-sea species, called Graneledone boreopacifica, off the coast of central California, the scientists tracked one female with distinctive scars clinging to a vertical rock face near the floor of a canyon about 1,400m under the surface, keeping her roughly 160 translucent eggs free of debris and silt and chasing off predators.

This mother octopus never left the oblong-shaped eggs – which during the brooding period grew from about the size of a blueberry to the size of a grape – and was never seen eating anything. During 18 dives over 53 months from May 2007 to September 2011, researchers noticed the octopus progressively losing weight and its skin becoming pale and loose.

Bruce Robison, a deep sea ecologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, says the species exhibits an extremely powerful maternal instinct. “It’s extraordinary. It’s amazing. We’re still astonished ourselves by what we saw,” Robison said.

Most octopus females lay a single set of eggs in a lifetime and die shortly after their offspring hatch. The long brooding period enables the hatchlings to come out of their eggs uniquely capable of survival, emerging as fully developed miniature adults able to capture small prey.

Ultimate sacrifice: In most octopus species, the end of the brooding period also means the end of life for the octopus mother. This close-up shows Octomum and eggs. – Reuters

At this tremendous depth, there is no sunlight – the only light comes from bioluminescent sea creatures – and it is very cold, 3℃. “It may seem nasty to us, but it’s home to them,” Robison said.

During the brooding period, the mother octopus seemed to focus exclusively on the welfare of the eggs. “She was protecting her eggs from predators, and they are abundant. There are fish and crabs and all sorts of critters that would love to get in there and eat those eggs. So she was pushing them away when they approached her,” Robison said.

“She was also keeping the eggs free from sediment and was ventilating them by pushing water across them for oxygen exchange. She was taking care of them,” Robison added. This species measures about 40cm long and is a pale purple colour with a mottled skin texture. It eats crabs, shrimp, snails – “pretty near anything they can catch,” Robison said. 

While the fate of the mother octopus is unknown, the scientists noted that it most probably perished as the eggs hatched, ending her one and only epic stint at motherhood. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Features, Science, Biology, Nature, Wildlife, Animal, octopus, deep sea, mother, mum, Octo-mum, research, longest egg brooding period, Graneledone boreopacifica, PLOS ONE, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

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