***In honor of mother’s day, today we stray a bit from just the sex, to include a phenomenal act of motherhood by the largest invert on the planet. But don’t worry. There’s still some sex. Here’s to you, Giant Pacific Octopus moms.***
The original octo-mom has been juggling a multitude of kids for millenia. Tens of thousands of them at a time. One by one she lays over 50,000 fertilized eggs and with meticulous care, links them together like so many strings of pearls. Attaching them to the roof of her den, they hang, swaying in the current she provides by blowing water out her siphon. There she sits, for months, fending off any potential predators and breathing life into her young. Her massive might slowly dwindles away until, when she senses the time is right, she rallies for one last mighty effort, blowing her eggs out of their cozy den and into the wild beyond. For the Giant Pacific Octopus, this dedicated act of maternal care costs the mother her life.
In the cold dark waters off Seattle’s coast, Seainggreen captured the incredible sight of the hatchlings venturing forth into the big blue for the first time—perfect miniatures of their gigantic mother. Her large stature (some reach up to 16ft in length) makes her delicate work to rear her young all the more impressive.
It’s the ultimate sacrifice, and as is pretty typical of nature, its the coup de grâce of a less-than spectacular night of sex.
Don’t get me wrong. Male octopods invest a bit of time and energy selecting and then guarding their chosen mates (a fact only recently discovered. Until a few years ago, they were thought to be more of the hit-it-an-quit-it type of species). Big boys favor big girls (who have more eggs) and thus, there can be some intense battles—sometimes, the male has to chase off competition while in the act. Impressive, yes, though its probably easier than you might think given he’s got seven arms to fight with and only one that needs to tend to his lady.
Turns out that male octopus are righties—at least when it comes to sex. The third arm on the right is the one that delivers the sperm packet. Rather than suckers, this hectocotylus (octopus have names for their units, too) has a groove where a string of sperm can ooze on out. All the male needs to do is insert the tip under the mantle of the female. Groovy indeed. Such encounters can be fleeting, or last a few hours. In some related species—such as the paper nautilus—this modified male appendage actually detaches. Its fancy penis-work indeed. For the Giant Pacific Octopus, though, its just a quick thrust up and under. Visually, its rather psychedelic: a flurry of 16 rapidly color-changing arms undulating, twisting, and gliding over the seafloor.
But at the end of the day, the most remarkable feat of octopus sex isn’t really the sex at all. Its what the female endures 4-5 months later.
As many authors have noted, it is an event both uplifting and sad—celebration at the birth of thousands of new lives, tempered by the knowledge that their mighty mom will soon crawl out of her cave to die. But, man, what a sight it is. Enjoy. And Happy Mother’s Day.