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Released August 1, 2003


BILOXI - New baby octopuses about the size of fleas have folks jumping at The University of Southern Mississippi Scott Aquarium.

In a first for the aquarium, a female octopus has laid eggs and is hatching them. Hopes are that a few of the thousands of babies will survive past three months.

"We didn't breed her here," Buck Schesny, aquarist, said. "We got her earlier this spring, and she evidently had already received a sperm packet. For them to hatch is common, but to raise the juveniles to adulthood is very difficult."

Common though the egg-hatching process is, having an opportunity to see it firsthand is not. The octopus first came to the aquarium thanks to a Pascagoula shrimper who had caught her in a trawl.

"Four weeks ago she disappeared under a rock. She has been hatching since July 25," Schesny said. The only evidence visible to visitors is a multitude of flea-sized specks pulsing around the tank. The specks may be dark or light, as the juveniles already have the ability to change color as a protection mechanism.

Behind the scenes, the aquarium crew has scraped off paint that provided a background for the 210-gallon tank, home to the adult octopus. A small piece of plywood keeps light out until it is time for the aquarists to take a peek at mom and her eggs.

"The female plasters eggs to the walls of her den," said Jennifer Hale, Scott Aquarium educator and a storehouse of knowledge about cephalopods - octopus and squid. "She stays with her eggs for the entire brood time. It may take two to three months for them all to hatch."

The process has already slowed down at the aquarium.

"I was moving juveniles out to a 250-gallon tank twice a day," Schesny said. "Now it is down to once a day."

Hale said the female doesn't leave the den and uses her arms and suckers to brush over the eggs to keep them clean and oxygenated.

"Because she doesn't go out hunting, she ingests about one-third of her body weight," Hale said. "After the eggs hatch, she usually dies of pure starvation. If she doesn't die, when she emerges from her den in the wild, a host of other animals are waiting for her. She is just too weak to get away. She is an easy meal."

Schesny noted that rainy weather on the coast is one of the difficulties in keeping the new arrivals alive.

"If the water was nice and salty, I could collect food right here off the seawall. Right now I have to go out to where it is salty to get the food they need."

The first three months the octopus juveniles dine on copepods - small crustaceans. The juveniles are voracious eaters, and having the right food - and enough of it - is essential for their survival. Schesny is already seeing high mortality, but he is still hoping that the aquarium team can nurse at least one into adulthood.

"That would be another first for us," he said.

The J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium is part of the Southern Miss Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.



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August 18, 2003 5:24 PM