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Sunday, February 21, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wrapped Up In Octopuses -- Biologist Roland Anderson Is Studying These Little-Understood Denizens Of Puget Sound, With Hopes Of Repairing Their Poor Public Image.

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

In a dark corner deep in the bowels of the Seattle Aquarium, a mottled-red tentacle slithers out of a saltwater tank and over the rusty metal edge. Another follows, groping until both tentacles encounter human flesh and wrap themselves around it, clinging with hundreds of rubbery suckers.

"I'm being slimed!" Roland Anderson chuckles as his hand disappears amid the tentacles.

The seasoned biologist grins affectionately as he withdraws his hand, cephalopod suckers popping like bubble wrap as they disengage. The octopus retreats down the aquarium glass, eight tentacles moving with balletlike choreography.

The feeling appears to be mutual. If this octopus could smile, she would. It looks like love.

But rest assured, the relationship is strictly platonic.

Anderson and octopus share a mission: education. Soon this yet-unnamed creature will be moved upstairs to the 900-gallon octagonal tank that greets aquarium visitors just inside the main door. There she will replace longtime resident Ursula, who will be returned to Puget Sound, hopefully to spawn before living out her remaining months.

With some luck, and perhaps a generous donation or two, The Octopus To Be Named Later will eventually move to even more spacious quarters, a 3,500-gallon megatank that tops Anderson's wish list.

All this in the interest of acquainting Seattle with a remarkable creature that thrives on our watery doorstep.

Part of the task is to repair a public image that has suffered immeasurably at the hands of Hollywood. Anderson counts at least 60 movies, ranging from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to "It Came from Beneath the Sea," which portray monster octopuses or squids devouring people, submarines, even the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is unfair, Anderson says, but he maintains a healthy sense of humor. And if a monster cephalopod were to appear anywhere, it might as well be here on Puget Sound, which is home to the largest octopus in the world - O. dofleini, better known as the "giant Pacific octopus."

At about 40 pounds, Ursula is no monster. In the wild, giant Pacifics have been known to exceed 100 pounds, measuring more than 12 feet from the tip of one tentacle to another.

Their close cousins, O. rubescens or "red octopuses," are a scaled-down version. They grow to about a half pound and fit comfortably in a teacup. More likely it would be a discarded beer bottle, Anderson says. In fact, yesterday's litter may actually benefit Puget Sound's octopus population, providing habitat on sandy bottoms that might otherwise be unfriendly to homeless cephalopods.

Large or small, the octopus is a physiological masterpiece - eight tentacles, each of which can operate independently or in graceful symphony with the others, all emerging from beneath a soft, hoodlike mantle topped by two eyes that seem to size up aquarium visitors with profound skepticism.

They are jet-propelled, ingesting sea water and ejecting it at will through a flexible funnel. They are masters of disguise, instantly flashing from red to orange to brown to white and back again.

Unburdened by a skeleton, they are expert contortionists, squeezing through impossibly small spaces. They are strong enough to lift more than their own weight. And they are very, very smart, Anderson emphasizes - at least by invertebrate standards.

More to the point, his own research at the Seattle Aquarium suggests strongly that your neighborhood octopus has a personality.

LITTLE ORPHANS

Octopuses are born, appropriately enough, under rocks. That's where mom deposits some 50,000 to 75,000 eggs, each the size of a grain of rice, and guards the nest four to six months until the eggs hatch.

Feeding on microscopic-sized plankton, the newly hatched octopus feeds voraciously and grows, gaining as much as 2 percent of its body weight per day. Most will be gobbled up by larger creatures, but the fortunate few who reach maturity will live three to five years.

As adults, they live in rocky dens and crevices, in shipwrecks or discarded tires - any place they can squeeze themselves for protection from predators.

Their strictly carnivorous diet soon graduates to crabs, clams and fish.

"Their feeding strategy is fascinating," Anderson says. "Octopus have a rasping tongue, much like a small file. They use the tongue to drill a pinhole in the shell, and then inject a venomous saliva that paralyzes and kills the organism within seconds. The clam opens automatically, and the saliva loosens the crab meat so the octopus can extract it."

That venom, in tandem with a parrotlike beak, gives the octopus a nasty bite, he says. In some 20 years working with octopuses, Anderson has not been bitten, but others at the aquarium have. The toxin causes pain and swelling somewhat worse than a bee sting, he says, and may leave a scar.

Ironically, the smaller red octopus is more likely to bite than the giants, whom Anderson describes as "pussycats."

Fortunately, the respectable octopus would much rather bite a crab. And in pursuit of same, the octopus will move from den to den, staying a month or so until it has depleted the local food supply.

Both species range from Alaska to Northern California, but they are biggest and most plentiful in Puget Sound. "Probably because the Sound is so rich," Anderson says. "Good water quality, lots of crabs, clams, fish."

In some cases, octopuses will stay in their dens, wait for something tasty to swim by and snag it. But they also hunt, gallumphing along the bottom on all eights until they find a crab and surround it. As adults, they use their jets only in emergencies - to chase meals or avoid becoming one.

While there is no survey data, Anderson dives frequently and is confident octopus populations are increasing.

"We had a couple of divers out there on a dark, cloudy day a few weeks ago, and they were seeing octopus everywhere."

Researchers believe octopuses spawn only once, Anderson says, but they do it very well. The male uses a specialized tentacle to deliver a "spermatophore," or packet of sperm, to the female, who tucks it away for future reference. When she's ready, she uses the sperm to fertilize her thousands of eggs and deposits them under a rock.

"For an octopus, there is no such thing as safe sex," Anderson explains. After mating, the male "goes a little crazy," stops eating, abandons its den - an apparent act of chivalry that frees up space for spawning females - and dies. The female guards her brood for several months, manipulating the eggs, using her funnel to keep them clean. She, too, stops eating, her body shrinking until the eggs hatch. . . .

And then she dies.

EASY TO CATCH

Octopuses have many predators, ranging from large fish to people. The ancient Greeks simply lowered clay pots to known octopus habitat and left them there a day or so; when they hauled them back to the surface, the newly resident octopus became tomorrow's calamari.

The strategy still works. Octopuses can be caught with a rubber tire tied to a rope. The aquarium once inherited a healthy 25-pounder caught by a guest from his window at the nearby Edgewater Hotel.

In the early 1960s, Northwest scuba divers competed in the "World Octopus Wrestling Championships" at Tacoma Narrows, luring giant Pacifics out of their dens and hauling them back to shore for weighing and judging. By the mid-60s, the event fizzled.

Anderson, however, still prefers to catch them by hand, scuba-diving into known "octopus holes" such as Neah Bay, Hood Canal, Tacoma Narrows. A single shipwreck in Discovery Bay proved to be home to at least eight giant octopuses. Even Elliott Bay is good octopus country, with one specimen residing beneath the aquarium pier.

Collectors entice them out of their dens, grab a tentacle or two and stuff them into a plastic bag.

"You avoid handling them too much, but the fact is they can take a fair amount of handling without doing any harm."

But be careful; they are escape artists. A 35-pounder at the Seattle Aquarium once lifted the 60-pound lid off its tank and crawled out.

Anderson has tried keeping an octopus in the main tank. Alas, it rejected frozen herring and other handouts in favor of its live neighbors. Visitors reacted poorly to watching their favorite salmon snatched and devoured by resident O. dofleini.

In most respects, however, the octopus adapts readily to living in captivity, Anderson says. Being solitary creatures, they seem perfectly happy in small spaces.

Happy? Yes, octopuses have emotions. They wear them on all eight sleeves.

"Color changes seem to be linked to behavior," he says. "We're investigating how and why, but they seem to have a range of messages: `I'm ready to mate now,' or `Predator coming!' or `Stay away from that female or else!' "

And then there's: "Leave me alone, I'm taking a nap."

With mammallike eyes and brains, the octopus exhibits un-invertebrate behaviors such as sleep. Visit the aquarium on a quiet morning and you're liable to find Ursula or cousin "Biff" (who lives in a smaller tank nearby) snoozing - eyes closed, tentacles limp, body color a murky white. Tap on the glass and the eyes open, tentacles come to life and body color flashes to red.

"Their intelligence is probably comparable with a white rat," Anderson says. "They can be taught to open jars or to go through a maze."

The journal Science recently reported Anderson's research on octopus "play." Each of eight octopuses was provided with a white pill bottle. Some ignored it. Some used their funnels to blow it away. Still others shot it around the tank, retrieved it, and shot it again, and again.

"Some did this for periods of more than five minutes," Anderson reports. "We see this as repetitive, long-term behavior with no apparent function - except that it feels good, which is the definition of `play.' "

The fact that some played and others didn't suggests octopuses have personalities - social, aggressive, shy and more.

As a relatively social octopus, Ursula should fare well in the wild, Anderson says, a little wistfully. She will find a willing male and a rock suitable for spawning - very possibly in the murky depths of Elliott Bay.

And perhaps it's not completely unscientific to speculate that, when the parting occurs, the sweet sorrow just might be mutual.

Ross Anderson's phone message number is 206-464-2061.

------------------------ Octopuses of Puget Sound ------------------------

Puget Sound is home to two species of octopus - O. dofleini (giants), the world's largest, and O. rebescens (reds). Their main difference is size.

Vital statistics:

Giants: as long as 12 feet, from tip to tip. Reds: as long as 12 inches, from tip to tip.

Weight: Giants weight 40-60 pounds, reds about 1/2 pound.

Range: Northern California to Alaska.

Habitat: Rocky bottoms to 500 feet.

Food: Crabs, clams, small fish.

Major predators: Large fish, seals, sharks.

Status: Populations are unknown but believed to be healthy and growing.

Source: Roland Anderson, Seattle Aquarium; The World Book Encyclopedia

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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