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Giant Octopus: Anchorage Daily News story

Octopus a sucker for jar lids.
Featured on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News, 24 July 1999


Here's the text version. It is unedited. This is the story I sent up to editors, but not exactly the same as what appeared in the paper.

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Daily News Peninsula Bureau

SOLDOTNA -"Ulu," the giant Pacific octopus, opens peanut butter jars. People watching the 7-pound male, on display at the Alaska SeaLife Center, come away amazed that a sea creature, or any animal for that matter, has the smarts to unscrew the lid off a plastic tub. But it's no big deal, say researchers who tell stories of these intelligent, crafty invertabrates digging clams, slithering into fish holds and having the nerve to swipe salmon from the talons of bald eagles.

Ulu opens jars three or four afternoons a week to get his lunch: Small crabs placed in the tubs by the center's aquarium manager, Vallorie (cq) Hodges.

When he's hungry, he wraps his whole body around the jar, hiding it from view of Hodges and the center's visitors.

"He moves the jar around with his suckers," Hodges said. "You know it's done when the lid of the jar pops to the surface.When he commences to open the jar, it takes him literally seconds."

Sometimes the mottled red and orange octopus tucks the plastic lid under one of his eight tentacles as he eats, she said.

Ulu's lid-removing prowess might wow spectators but it is an old trick in marine science circles, Hodges said.

Not only does the skill indicate how quickly octopuses learn and remember what they've learned, but it also provides a nifty tool for researches who want to gauge octopuses' favorite foods. They put two jars with different meals into the tank and note which jar is opened first.

One day, such knowledge may help researchers unravel how these little-known, reclusive animals fit into Alaska's undersea ecology. David Scheel, an ecologist working for the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, hopes to begin a series of experiments involving Ulu later this year. Scheel wants to measure what he eats, even how fast he eats. The research was sparked by a perceived octopus population decline in Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Until Scheel arrives, Hodges and her favorite octopus, Ulu, are essentially practicing the technique. Lately, she's been offering Ulu two jars, one with a live crab and one containing a dead crab. "He'll grab the live crab first and then he'll eat the other one," she said. "Right now, he's eating everything we're giving him."

Octopuses don't have a bone in their bodies, but they do have what's called a beak, much like a parrot's beak, and it's well suited to prying open shells.

Ulu, plucked from a den in the Chiswell Islands last year, probably is 1 or 2 years old and still growing. He'll reach sexual maturity when he reaches 12 to 14 pounds, she said. Animals taken from Alaska waters can reach 40 pounds, but they never reach the proportions of their relatives in Puget Sound, which have weighed in at 100 pounds.

They're surprisingly short lived, with a lifespan of three to seven years, Hodges said.

Hodges described Ulu as "gregarious and outgoing" compared to the SeaLife Center's four other octopuses. Ulu lives in a 65-gallon tank at the edge of the center's petting exhibit, where he's become used to the constant staring of visitors, she said.

"He's outrageous," she said. "He crawls right out of the tank. He's got half the interns scared snotty of him."

Sometimes, she said, Ulu is more interested in grabbing her than opening the jars. "It's like 100 arms hugging you at the same time," she said. "They wrap their arms around me all the time, and, while they're not strong enough to pull me into the tank yet, if we had a 40-pound animal, darn right they could."

Giant Pacific octopus have a huge home range, starting off the coast of Southern California, continuing north then west along the Aleutians and back south into Japanese waters.

Hodges said the SeaLife Center's octopus display, "Denizens of the Deep," is actually mislabled, indicating just how misunderstood octopuses are. Most of them live in dens under boulders very near the low tide line, she said.

Studying an octopus's diet is tough, Scheel said, because octopuses, like people, will make the most of the foods around them. They have some 30 prey species. In Prince William Sound, they enjoy eating small crabs, but across the Kenai Peninsula in Kasitsna Bay, they lean toward littleneck clams. "Either way, they eat like kings," he said.

"We know the basics," he said. "We know the species on this side of the Pacific likes rocky habitat. And we know octopuses go out and forage around their homes, catch their prey, carry it back to the den and eat their catch one by one, spitting the remains outside the den."

Scheel has walked beaches at extreme low tides, sorting through these trash piles of clam and crab shells.

Hodges has heard stories of captive octopus crawling out of their tanks, holding their breath, and crawling into other tanks containing crabs just to get a snack.

Stories like the don't surprise Brian Paust, who runs the Univsersity of Alaska's Marine Advisory Program in Petersburg. Paust has examined the potential of an Alaska octopus fishery and he's heard some amazing stories from what he said were reliable sources.

One pair of kayakers near the Stikine Delta lifted an octopus with their oars to see it clinging to several clams with each arm, Paust said. "The animal had been up there in the flats clam digging," he said.

And a friend of his, a dungeness crab fisherman, once absentmindedly pulled an octopus from his crab pot and tossed it into his hold full of crabs. Later that night, the story goes, a loud thump wakened the skipper from his bunk. He went outside to see the hatch cover off and a slimy trail to the edge of the boat. He closed the hatch, only to be awakened again much later by another thump. By the time he rolled out of bed, he saw the hatch shoved aside, "and he caught a glance of the octopus going over edge of his boat again, but this time with two large crabs," Paust said.

Paust said he's personally seen an octopus rip a juvenile silver salmon from the talons of a bald eagle perched a little too close to the water. While he said he's interested in understanding what octopuses eat, Paust said he's more interested in learning what eats octopus.

"Just about everything that swims in the ocean feeds on octopus in one life stage or another," he said. "Humans, too, enjoy sushi. It's the octopuses' intelligence that's allwoed them to be cryptic, capable survivors."

David Scheel has posted details on giant Pacific octopus and his studies at www.pwssc.gen.ak.us/~dls/octopus.

Reporter Jon Little can be reached at jlittle@adn.com


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1999 Anchorage Daily News