Marine biologist, Richard Ross, was the first speaker to be announced for the 2012 Marine Breeder’s Workshop that will be held on July 28th at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, MI.
Richard Ross currently works as an Aquatic Biologist at the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences, maintaining many exhibits including the 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef. He has kept saltwater animals for over 25 years, and has worked in aquarium maintenance, retail, wholesale and has consulted for a coral farm/fish collecting station in the South Pacific. Richard enjoys all aspects of the aquarium hobby and is a regular author for trade publications, a frequent speaker at aquarium conferences and was a founder of one of the largest and most progressive reef clubs in Northern California, Bay Area Reefers.
His talk will cover the nuts and bolts of established and cutting edge Cephalopod breeding and rearing techniques, as well as discuss the successful spawning and larval rearing attempts of other marine animals at the Steinhart Aquarium. Stay tuned for more speakers and ticket details.
Photos by Christopher Paparo, Video by Richard Ross
The Holy Grail
As a professional aquarist, my career has presented me with the opportunity to work with a variety of remarkable marine life. Working with animals from sharks to mammals, and electric eels to reptiles has been very rewarding, but none compare to the experience of working with cephalopods. At Atlantis Marine World, I care for our two cephalopod exhibits, the giant pacific octopus and cuttlefish. They are two of the most popular exhibits at the aquarium. Their unique, almost alien-like appearance, combined with their ability to change color and shape in an instant, keeps visitors mesmerized in front of the exhibits all day. Sadly, the specimens kept in these two exhibits are not with us for long. All cephalopods have a very short life span, some lasting less than a year. They hatch, grow quickly, and die shortly after reproduction. Fortunately though, this short life means they reach sexual maturity in a reasonable amount of time, making captive breeding of many cephalopod species possible. Typically, we keep Sepia officinalis or Sepia pharaonis, and I have been fortunate enough to raise both species. Recently, however, a twist of fate has afforded me the opportunity of a lifetime.
This journey started almost a year ago when a marine life wholesaler in California called to tell us that he had some Metasepia pfefferi (flamboyant cuttlefish) coming in and asked if we were interested. Since it is considered the holy grail of cephalopods and probably the coolest animal on the planet, what could we say?
The M. pfefferi was being sent next day via FedEx, which meant there was little time to prepare. Swinging into high gear we quickly set up a home for it, which ended up being a 24-gallon Via-Aqua tank with a shallow bed of live sand. The cuttlefish arrived the very next day. We acclimated it to its new home, and I immediately fell in love. Since I have never taken care of a flamboyant cuttlefish before, I contacted Richard Ross, the “cephalopod guru”, to ask for any useful information. He told me that it is common for flamboyant cuttlefish to mate before being collected. He explained that they prefer to lay their eggs under ledges and he recommended adding coconut shell halves in the tank, just in case by some miracle we received a gravid female. It seemed like a long shot that this cuttlefish could have reached sexual maturity and mated already, as it was only 2.5 inches in length.
After giving the cuttlefish some time to settle in, we offered it a live shore shrimp (Palaemonetes pugio), which it immediately stalked and devoured. The flamboyant is like no other cuttlefish I’ve encountered before. Most cuttlefish are masters of camouflage, having the ability to blend in quite well with their surroundings by changing the texture as well as the color of their skin quickly. Flamboyant cuttlefish share this ability to blend, but can also take their appearance to the other extreme with their stunning coloration. When they feel threatened they show a remarkable rippling display of colors down their body from bright yellows and whites, to bold purples and reds, making them stand out vibrantly. This show of colors is also a way to broadcast to potential predators that it is poisonous. It is said to be as lethal as a blue-ringed octopus, making the flamboyant cuttlefish the most toxic of the cuttlefish species. Another odd behavior of the flamboyant is that unlike other cuttlefish that are usually shy and spook easily, flamboyant cuttlefish are courageous. They will stand their ground instead of jetting off into the background of their tank. These behaviors make them very intriguing and guaranteed to hypnotize anyone. Needless to say, none of us got much work done for the rest of the day.
As the flamboyant was settling in and getting comfortable in its home, I added it into my routine of daily feedings and water changes. Being that Atlantis Marine World is located on a tidal river, it is very convenient to get endless amounts of shore shrimp and killifish. These shrimp and killifish are enriched with Cyclops and salt-water mysis before they are fed out. Using live food helped maintain good water quality since any uneaten food would be alive and not foul the water. However, being that it was a new system and cycling, I did a 15% water change, 3 times a week in order to keep the ammonia, nitrates and nitrites as close to zero as possible. I kept the salinity around 33 ppt, the pH between 7.8 and 8.0 and the temperature close to 73 degrees Fahrenheit. This combination seems to keep the flamboyant happy and healthy.
After about 3 weeks of giving this flamboyant a lot of special attention the unthinkable happened: she laid eggs! The morning of July 4th was a memorable one to say the least. On my morning rounds, I stopped to say good morning to her and to my surprise there were about 20 perfect white eggs in one of the coconut halves. Ecstatic beyond belief, I needed to find someone to share my excitement and that someone happened to be Senior Aquarist, Chris Paparo. He told me not to get too worked up because he thought there was a high chance that they were infertile. However, I had a strong feeling otherwise and was excited to watch them develop.
With the exception of marine mammals and a few other taxa (damsels, cardinals, crustaceans, etc.), maternal instincts are lacking in the marine world. Most marine organisms release egg and sperm into the water, and hope for the best. The flamboyant cuttlefish is one of those exceptions. Most of the day she spent tending to the eggs, keeping them clear of detritus and other fouling agents, and guarding them from possible predation. Even though she was alone in the tank and there was no predation threat, she would still “pace” back and forth in front of the shells using her tentacles and two leg-like appendages that looked as if they were molded from the bottom of her mantle. Instead of swimming, flamboyant cuttlefish spend most of their time literally walking around on the substrate. This benthic behavior is due to their smaller than normal cuttlebone. All cuttlefish have a cuttlebone, which is made up of calcium carbonate. It is divided into chambers and depending on the buoyancy that a cuttlefish needs, it can either empty or fill these chambers with gas. Since the flamboyant cuttlefish has a small cuttlebone, they have a harder time with their buoyancy and cannot swim for long periods of time without sinking.
On August 10th, approximately a month after the first egg was laid the unimaginable happened and possibly the most important day of my career had come. While giving out her first feed of the day, I noticed the most beautiful, tiny baby cuttlefish hanging out on the wall of her tank. Not believing my eyes, standing there in shock and awe, fellow Aquarist Todd Gardner rounded the corner and asked what I was looking at. As I showed him the 1 cm long carbon copy of the adult flamboyant we stared in silence together, then celebrated for about 5 minutes before starting to think about setting up a tank for Junior.
Here at Atlantis Marine World, we believe in keeping things simple. So for Junior’s tank we used a 10-gallon tank with a hang on the back Aqua Clear mini filter and some live aragonite as substrate. After the new system was running and ready for its first occupant, I carefully scooped up the tiny baby in a deli cup and gently transferred it into its new home. Now for the hard part, what to feed this little guy? After doing some research, I found that newly hatched mysid shrimp were needed to feed Junior. I located a company in Florida, Marinco Bioassay Laboratory, which cultures mysids. After making a call, I ordered the smallest possible mysids they could ship me, which were 7 days old, and hoped it would be suitable. To my relief they were and it didn’t take long for Junior to track them down and consume them. Keeping the water parameters of the tank as close as possible to its mothers was easy enough; it was keeping the right amount of food in the tank that was more difficult. Too few mysids made catching one more difficult, but too many would stress Junior.
Over the next two months ten babies hatched. Unfortunately, two of these hatched prematurely. The two preemies had buoyancy issues and one still had a yolk sac. Needless to say, they did not survive. Keeping all eight hatchlings in the same tank worked at first, but started to become an issue when it came to feeding. Since there was a 2-month difference from the oldest to the youngest, the oldest seemed to be over powering the little ones and eating a majority of the food. At 2 months, the oldest was big enough to eat something more substantial than mysids, so I searched through the shore shrimp tank to find the smallest shore shrimp possible. At about a quarter of an inch long, I broke off the rostrum of the grass shrimp and dropped it in the tank in front of the oldest baby. To my delight he ate it right up. The feeding process started to get tedious and time consuming. It was a real challenge to make sure that all of the babies were getting enough food, so more tanks needed to be set up.
The 10-gallon set up was working just fine, so I set up two more 10-gallon tanks and another 24-gallon Via-Aqua. I size sorted the babies and split them between the four tanks. This seemed to work out well, especially when it came to feeding. Being able to see how much they were eating and weaning them from mysids to grass shrimp was easier and less stressful. Although feedings were simpler, I increased my maintenance workload by three-fold. I was still water changing their mothers’ tank 3 times a week, and now having to do the same for the four baby tanks was repetitive yet necessary to keep up with the proper parameters for these guys to grow and be healthy.
All the work I’ve been putting in with these guys was challenging and monotonous at times but it was beyond worth it. When the oldest babies reached ages of about 4-5 months, they were big enough to be displayed. Getting the “o.k.” to redo the existing cuttlefish exhibit, I replaced all the substrate and décor and revamped the overflow so the smaller cuttlefish would not get stuck to it. Once finished, I moved 6 flamboyant cuttlefish to the 500 gallon half circle exhibit. They got along for the most part. Surprisingly it was the smallest one that caused some trouble. He would get up in the others’ faces, follow them around, and threaten them. Basically it was like he had Napoleon complex and was trying to prove himself. This lasted for about 2 weeks before they all settled down, made peace with each other and made excellent display animals.
Meanwhile, back behind the scenes, their mother was still going strong. She continued to lay hundreds of eggs and took great care of them. There were no more fertile eggs by this point, but she still acted as if there were by guarding and cleaning them. She continued to eat very well until mid-January. Her eye sight started to go and she was missing her food. Like all Cephalopods when it is their time to go it is very sad to watch as they slowly perish. By my calculations she was at least 14 months old, and knowing cephalopods are short lived, I figured she had lived a long, fruitful, and what I hope was a happy life. January 27th was a sad day for me as my first and yet very successful Flamboyant cuttlefish had passed. With all that I have learned from her, I hope I get the chance to repeat this process. All I can do now is wait and see if her legacy will live on with the hope that the courtship I am seeing with the new generation will be equally bountiful.
UPDATE: As of this writing, Allison’s hopes for the second generation have been realized as evidenced by the photos and video below. Several captive bred specimens have now been reared and sent to other aquariums for further study. Congratulations on yet another stunning achievement!
23.4 Tuesday, Jan. 4 Observations on mating behavior and development in the lesser Pacific striped octopus, Octopus chierchiae (Jatta, 1889)HOFMEISTER, J.K.*; ALUPAY, J.S.; ROSS, R.; CALDWELL, R.L.; Univ. of California, Berkeley; Univ. of California, Berkeley; California Academy of Sciences; Univ. of California, Berkeleyjenkkhof@berkeley.edu
The lesser Pacific striped octopus, Octopus chierchiae, is a rare and unique pygmy species that, due to its colorful striping pattern, ability to spawn multiple egg clutches in its lifetime (iteroparity), and direct developing young, is a potentially ideal species to culture for both research and the aquarium trade. O. chierchiae is found from the low intertidal zone to at least 40 m from the Gulf of California to Columbia, but has not been observed since the 1980s due to its scarcity in the wild. O. chierchiae’s iteroparity sets it apart from most other octopods and provides an opportunity to not only study the behavior itself, but to gain insight on the control of reproduction. Four males and two females were mated for a total of eight copulations. Video observations of O. chierchiae mating were taken for the first time. Males exhibited an arm twirling behavior, in which the animal spins the tips of his arms in a circular motion. During copulation, the male pounces on the female, consistent with the behavior of other octopods, but also exhibits a second mating position: beak to beak. One of the females produced three viable clutches of eggs and observations were made on the growth and development of the offspring. Males and females start to diverge in weight at about 150 days, and the resulting sexual size dimorphism coincides with the development of secondary sex characteristics in males. O. chierchiae is a highly desirable species, both in research and in the aquarium trade, and the more that is understood about their mating behaviors and habits, the more likely we will be able to culture O. chierchiae.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you think your mother, or perhaps mothers in general, are pretty goddamn awesome. They scrub things, cook pot roast, and produce shrieking little babies which grow up to be astronauts and prime ministers. When you got sucker-punched at recess, she was there for you. When you accidentally peed your pants on the first day of school, she wiped away the tears. When the cat ate your favorite hamster and then barfed it onto your favorite pair of pajamas, she was your shoulder to cry on. Mothers sacrifice their own happiness for the betterment of their offspring.
Like most universally liked things, however, there’s always a better underdog.
Enter the octopus.
Comparing moms to an octopus would be like pitting an army of savages against one well-oiled gatling gun sitting atop a hill. The mothers would charge the hill, hurling rocks and sticks; they’d roar righteous, compassionate battle cries of warriors who believe they are fighting for the betterment of humanity. They’d truly fight from the heart.
Meanwhile the gatling gun would rotate in a precise semicircle and mow them down like dogs.
Mothers love to complain about child birth. We’ve all heard it: “I went into labor and it lasted 36 hours!” or “When I farted out my last baby it hurt like a sonofabitch.” When an octopus mother gives birth, she blasts out nearly 200,000 babies and then hangs onto them within her tentacles. If food becomes low, she’ll scoop them up like nachos and eat a few thousand in order to survive. I bet your mom never carried a few hundred thousand infants in her arms and ate a few when she wanted a snack, now did she?
Some octopuses differ in size so greatly that the father will never grow to be be larger than an acorn, meanwhile the mother will mature to be the size of a human being (150 lbs or so). This disparity in size would be like marrying a woman who grows to be the size of a dump truck. Impressive, huh?
You bet your ass it is.
Furthermore, when an octopus mother finally sets her spawn free, she doesn’t hang around and become a mommy blogger who bitches all day about nothing. Instead, she’ll wander off in her weakened state and get devoured by a large predator. The idea here being that once you perpetuate your own genes, you don’t have fuckall left to do so you should just let yourself become food for the rest of the animal kingdom. This is a sentiment I fully endorse, and if our moms really wanted to impress us they’d take to the hills and fight it out with mountain lions after our first birthday.
An octopus doesn’t sit around like an undersea lawn ornament, lazily watching repeats of Maury Povich or “nesting.” Octopuses are clever as hell and will entertain themselves by tormenting other sea creatures. This includes juggling crabs, throwing objects, and smashing things. One particularly bored octopus in a German aquarium was reported to squirt water out of his tank at an overhead lamp. The burnout caused a short-circuit throughout the entire aquarium which disrupted the pumps and endangered the lives of all the other animals. Other octopuses have been found to use old coconut shells to build little houses for themselves on the ocean floor, so while the moms of today are busy cleaning vomit off the seats of cheap minivans, octopuses are setting up undersea battle stations so they can one day win the war against all the other useless assclowns floating around in the ocean.
Unlike fish, which are dumb as shit, octopuses are insanely smart. They have both short and long-term memory, and in lab experiments they can be taught to differentiate shapes and patterns. They have also been seen to observe other octopuses and learn from their behavior. So theoretically, if a dolphin bum-rushed an octopus he’d not only remember it, he’d stalk the dolphin and take a giant octo-dump in his mouth while he slept.
Would your mother ever exact revenge on a dolphin by crapping in its gaping, blue jaws?
I didn’t think so.
Suppose you asked your mom to take down a caribou. Were she an octopus, she’d become nearly invisible and slide up next to it. Once she was within a few feet of it, she’d spray out a massive cloud of black ink. This ink would create a screen that she could conceal herself behind, and once close, she’d blast herself forward and encompass the caribou in a death grip, her motion and strength propelled by two of the three hearts used to pump blood in her body. Upon gripping the caribou, her arms would have taste buds so she would actually know the flavor of the caribou long before it reached her mouth. These arms would also deliver a paralyzing venom which would render the caribou unable to move but fully aware of its surroundings. Once paralyzed, she’d use her radula, which is sort of like a tongue equipped with miniature teeth, to drill into the caribou and suck out all the delicious innards.
If you’re an undersea predator, you’d be well advised not to fuck with an octopus. First of all, they’re very difficult to spot, especially the ones capable of changing their skin color to camouflage themselves. They can not only change the color of their skin, but the texture as well; they have tiny muscles which can constrict to appear rough like a piece of coral or pointy like seaweed. If spotted, they’ll spray a cloud of ink in order to screw up a predator’s sense of smell or temporarily confuse them while they make their getaway. They have no rigid skeleton, so their flexible bodies can squeeze through tiny spaces to evade capture. If caught, most octopus tentacles are venomous to predators, so even touching them can cause injury. There are also types of octopus which will tear off the tentacles of a Portuguese man-of-war (one of the most toxic, dangerous creatures on earth). Being immune to the deadly sting of the man-of-war, an octopus will then wield the stingers as weapons against other predators.
If, by chance, a predator actually manages to get hold of an octopus, the octopus is capable of letting a limb tear off in order to escape – a limb which will regenerate later on. If your mom could defend herself like an octopus, she’d evade being defeated by a mountain lion simply by letting him rip off her arms, at which point she’d flee into the forest and grow new ones.
If the “discard a body part” tactic doesn’t work, the octopus has a razor-sharp beak which it can bite down with. I find it fitting that the only rigid part of an octopus’ body is the part it uses to shank other sea creatures.
On one hand, we’ve got someone who blares the Hakuna Matata in the car and shops for breast pumps. On the other, we’ve got a murderous, smart creature capable of the most despicably awesome acts in the animal kingdom. It can become invisible, re-grow damaged limbs, shrink to impossible sizes, solve complex problems, blind predators, paralyze prey, and generally fuck with every other creature you saw in The Little Mermaid.