Greetings from chilly Anchorage! Towards the end of December, scientists discovered a new species of Pacific octopus in the waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska. I am a BIG fan of Pacific octopus, so you can imagine my excitement when I learned that a pair of marine biologists from Alaska Pacific University discovered the frilled giant Pacific octopus.
The giant Pacific octopus—one of the biggest known octopuses on the planet, averaging 110 pounds and 16 feet across—is in reality two species! While the two species ‘theory’ was suspected for a number of years, this is the first time researchers scientifically confirmed the existence of two separate species.
What makes the two species different? The newly discovered species has a distinctive “frill” that runs the length of its body and two distinctive white marks on its head (while the giant Pacific octopus only has one). The scientists found that the range of the new species extends from southeast Alaska to the Bering Sea.
While now two distinct species, both giant Pacific octopuses share remarkable intelligence (which is not surprising given they have nine brains)! They have been observed opening jars, navigating mazes and using tools. Giant Pacific octopuses can also alter their skin pigment to camouflage with nearly anything in their environment. While most live solitary lives, males and females come together around age three to mate. After laying up to 75,000 eggs, females put all their energy into tending her eggs for nearly seven months. Once her babies hatch, the three to four year life of the octopus comes to an end.
While the populations of these species are not endangered, climate change will impact the giant Pacific octopus. For example, ocean acidification will negatively impact many of its primary food sources (like crabs and clams). Increasing water temperatures may negatively impact their reproduction and decrease their already short lifespan.
More direct human activities may also impact these populations. Prince William Sound, the location of the discovery of the frilled giant octopus, is also the location of one of the worst environmental disasters in history, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. With the Trump administration’s proposed new five-year offshore leasing program that aims to open up almost all of America’s coastline to risky offshore drilling, not only the giant Pacific octopus, but all species of the marine ecosystem, are now at an increased risk of oil spills.
The discovery of new species, like the frilled giant Pacific octopus, is one of the many reasons that we should continue working together to protect their habitat. Who knows what new species will be discovered next? We won’t find out if we don’t protect the ocean and the animals that call it home.