Some deep-sea octopuses aren’t the long-haul moms scientists thought they were

Strategically laying eggs in the warmer water of geothermal springs speeds up hatching

underwater photo of an octopus garden on the sea floor

Some deep-sea octopuses lay their eggs in the warmer water of geothermal springs in the “Octopus Garden” (shown) off California’s coast, speeding up embryonic development.

Ocean Exploration Trust, NOAA

Octopuses living in the deep sea off the coast of California are breeding far faster than expected.

The animals lay their eggs near geothermal springs, and the warmer water speeds up embryonic development, researchers report February 28 at the virtual 2022 Ocean Sciences Meeting. That reproductive sleight of hand means that the octopus moms brood for less than two years, instead of the estimated 12.

In 2018, scientists working off the coast of California discovered thousands of deep-sea octopuses (Muusoctopus robustus) congregated on a patch of seafloor about 3,200 meters below the surface. Many of the grapefruit-sized animals were females brooding clutches of eggs, leading researchers to dub the site the Octopus Garden.

But with water temperatures hovering around a frigid 1.6° Celsius, growth in this garden was predicted to be leisurely. In octopuses, embryonic development tends to slow down at low temperatures, says marine ecologist Jim Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif. “When you get really cold, down near zero, that’s when brood periods get really long.”

The record for the longest brood period of any animal, just over four years, is held by a different species of octopus living in warmer water (SN: 7/30/14). M. robustus, thriving in the chilly depths of the Octopus Garden, was therefore a serious contender to snatch that title, Barry says. “If you look at its predicted brood period at 1.6° C, it’s over 12 years.”

To verify what would be a record-setting stint of motherhood, Barry and his colleagues repeatedly visited the Octopus Garden from 2019 to 2021 using a remotely operated vehicle. The team trained cameras at the octopus eggs, which resemble white fingers, to monitor their rate of development. With one of the submersible’s robotic arms, the researchers also gently nudged dozens of octopuses aside and measured the water temperature in their nests.

The team found that relatively warm water — up to 10.5° C — bathed all the egg clutches. The female octopuses are preferentially laying their eggs in streams of geothermally heated water, the researchers realized. That discovery was a tip-off that these animals are not the long-haul moms people thought them to be, Barry says. “We’re virtually certain these animals are breeding far more rapidly than you’d expect.”

image of three purple octopuses on the sea floor where one animal's white egg broods are visible
Deep-sea octopuses (Muusoctopus robustus) brood clutches of eggs, which look like white fingers.Ocean Exploration Trust, NOAA

Based on observations of the developing eggs, Barry and colleagues calculated that the moms brooded for only about 600 days, or about a year and a half. That is much faster than predicted, says Jeffrey Drazen, a deep-sea ecologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who was not involved in the research. “They’re cutting a huge amount of time off of their parental care period.”

There is also an evolutionary advantage to seeking out warmer water: Shorter brood periods mean that fewer eggs are likely to be gobbled up by predators. And these octopuses seem to know that, Barry says. “We believe they’re exploiting that thermal energy to improve reproductive success.”

Only a few other marine animals, such as icefish in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea (SN: 1/13/22), are known to seek out warmer conditions when breeding. But there are probably other species that do the same, Drazen says. The challenge is finding them and their breeding grounds in the vast expanse of the deep ocean. “I imagine that as we keep looking, we will keep finding really interesting sites that are important to certain species,” he says.

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