Sunday, May 25, 2008

PPG Aquarium Visit Part II - Octopus

After the shark feeding and training session with Bob I described yesterday, Kyle and I had the privilege of assisting Eric Kellar, a colleague of Bob's and another PPG Aquarium aquarist, with the care of the octopus, named Little Miss Priss. I'm not sure about the Priss part, but from our tankside perspective, she wasn't very little! Eric said she weight 30-40 lbs, and that males of her species can grow up to 100 lbs.

He said with the really big ones, caretakers have to be really careful. Their 8 legs beat our two hands any day, and occasionally a couple of those spare legs have been known to quietly sneak from the tank and wrap themselves around the unwitting caretaker, who suddenly finds himself being dragged into the tank and underwater. He says the octopus is just being playful and doesn't mean any harm, but it sounds like a real "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" moment to me!

The lid of her tank was a real puzzle to remove, with many latches. While Miss Priss has never gotten out of her tank, Eric confirmed that octopi are true escape artists. He told a story in which the caretaker at another facility was baffled by the disappearance of fish in a tank that contained no predators. Using a video camera to monitor the tank at night, he was amazed to discover an octopus nearby removing the lid of its own tank, crawling out of the water, across the lab and into the tank where the fish were disappearing. After his little midnight snack, the octopus would crawl back to its own tank. Most impressively of all, it would pull the lid of its own tank closed, as if to cover its own tracks. Now there is a aquatic creature I'd like to try training!

Miss Priss was a little shy at first. Eric told us they'd had a freak mishap a couple days ago. Miss Priss likes it cold - her tank temperature is kept in the low 40s by dual, redundant chillers. Against all odds, several nights ago Eric said both chillers failed at the exact same time, and Miss Priss's tank temperature rose to the mid-50s. Needless to say, she wasn't too happy about what to her must have felt like a sauna!

Fortunately, Eric told us she was OK, and is now beginning to eat again. To Kyle and me, she appeared to be eating her diet of squid and shrimp pretty enthusiastically. Eric would place a piece of food in one of her tentacles, which she would quickly withdraw to her underside to chomp up with her beak - all the while keeping both her big eyes trained on the three of us gathered around the rim of her several hundred gallon tank.

As with the sharks, the highlight of our time with Miss Priss was getting an opportunity to touch one of her tentacles, as you can see Eric doing in this picture. It felt weird to feel her suction cups adhering to our skin. Eric told us he thinks Miss Priss can distinguish between people by the taste of their skin, which octopi sense using receptors on their tentacles.

Good thing we'd followed Bob's instructions, and washed our hands after our shark encounter (which I described yesterday) since we wouldn't want to cross contaminate the two tanks. It parallels the instructions in the R2 Fish School manual to always wash your hands before and after a training session.

Before locking the lid back on Miss Priss's tank, Eric put a few remaining pieces of squid and shrimp into a two piece plastic yellow ball, that I'm pretty sure was one of those hamster balls that allows your hamsters to run around floor without escaping. Eric said Miss Priss has no trouble figuring out how to open the ball to get at the food. He says it serves as a little puzzle for her, to keep her challenged. He said Cephalopods like Miss Priss are highly intelligent. Without some kind of simulation and enrichment, they have a tendency to be destructive, sometimes even self-mutilating their tentacles.

Eric said they haven't yet trained Miss Priss, but were thinking about it. He thinks she might find it reward, and she clearly would be a good student.
Next time - Q&A with PPG Aquarium aquarist Bob Snowden.

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