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January 11, 2011

The Well-mannered Octopus, Part 1

Odie-training-3 In October we blogged about International Cephalopod Awareness Days, a word-of-mouth celebration that has been gaining suction, if you will, since it was conceived five years ago by an online community of octopus, nautilus, cuttlefish and squid enthusiasts. ICAD was embraced by Shedd’s octopus team—seven aquarists plus one of Shedd’s marine mammals training experts—which trains Odie, our giant Pacific octopus.

Yes, we train the octopus.

What’s good for the dolphins and belugas is also good for the rest of Shedd’s larger animals, including the river otter, sea turtle, snapping turtle and monkeys. Training is an opportunity to give animals physical activity and mental stimulation. But even more essential, training establishes behaviors by which the animals can participate in their own healthcare routines. It allows aquarists and trainers to easily examine them or, when necessary, ensure that our veterinarians have safe and ready hands-on access to them.

It’s also a lot of fun, although it’s hard to say who enjoys it more, the animals or the animal care staffers. On the day that I am invited behind the scenes of the Oceans gallery to watch an octopus training session, it looks like a draw.

Aquarist Eve Poynter, whose everyday activities are in the quarantine area, is the octopus team lead. For this session, one of three a week, she works with Laura Hilstrom, a senior aquarist whose charges in Wild Reef include the nautiluses. Laura has brought a dish of shrimp, large krill and clam chunks. Odie enjoys a varied diet that also includes squid and at least half a dozen kinds of fish.

Aquarium octopuses are notorious for their ability to pick the most sophisticated locks and latches and make midnight snack raids in neighboring exhibits. One deterrent is artificial turf, which the sensitive animals won’t cross. But Eve explains that it would require a veritable lawn of the prickly green stuff, up to 12 feet around the rim of the habitat, to thwart Odie’s 8-to-10-foot full-body span. "If they can get any part of an arm past the turf, all they need is one sucker to pull themselves over," she says of his kind’s truly superhuman physical abilities.

Instead, Shedd staffers designed a snug tongue-and-groove sliding lock with a rust-proof nylon bolt to keep Odie safely in his habitat. "We check it all the time to make sure it’s secure," Eve says.

Because octopuses don’t like bright light—and sunlight is streaming through the skylights—Laura sets up a huge black patio umbrella over the habitat. Then she removes the tinted plexiglass covers that provide subdued, blue-hued light similar to what filters down through reef waters. Finally she slides back the two habitat tops—heavy clear plexiglass set in sturdy metal frames that have been seamlessly epoxied to the cement walls of Odie’s abode.

Standing on a cement block, she leans over the water to locate the octopus. "You saw him in that far corner?" she asks Eve. "I saw him in this cave," Eve says, pointing.

Odie-training-2 Laura holds a large, yellow five-pointed star and a clicker and starts splashing the surface of the water. "We have his shape and his clicker, and we shake the water at the same time. We’re not sure if he can hear, but he might feel the vibrations in the water," she says.

Eve adds, "It takes a little bit of disturbance because he normally sleeps during the day." She continues, "A lot of times he’ll come to station"—the star—"with his eyes closed, keep his eyes closed during the session, and just use touch. Octopuses have so many senses, and vision is not the main one."

Now both women are stretching over the habitat in search of Odie. Eve offers to run out to the gallery so see where he is when a long, sinuous, tapering arm touches the star, then curls over and around it. Laura tucks a bit of food into one of the suckers of the arm on the star.

"We reward the arm that is doing the behavior we’re looking for," explains Eve, and suddenly the complexity of this animal hits home. The arms are almost like eight separate animals, all capable of independent activity. Training involves interacting with, and rewarding, just one of those arms so that the octopus—and the session—stay focused.

"The things we look for," says Eve, "are where all the arms are and what they’re doing. He has tricked us a few times. Sometimes we’ll have a toy on the habitat ledge or the food sitting too close, and while we’re concentrating on one arm for the behavior, another is stealing the food or the toy! He is challenging sometimes for not paying attention." Or maybe he’s just multitasking.

Right now, Odie is draped over a rock at the surface and focusing on Laura. "I’m going to touch the arm that I’m working with," the aquarist says, "and as long as he’s comfortable and doesn’t change color or show any other kind of adverse reaction, I’ll give him a little piece of food in a sucker on that arm." The muscular sucker closes around the morsel, and the arm withdraws toward the head and the beak on the underside.

Seven of Odie’s arms are each lined with 240 circular suckers arranged in double rows and sized incrementally from about the diameter of a quarter at the beak to smaller than the o in the blue box at the end of this post at the very tip. Like food conveyor belts, all suckers converge at the beak. They are also the primary organs with which Odie interacts with his world, through touch and taste, and the octopus has exquisite control over the suction, from a tentative touch to a Super Glue-like grip.

We know Odie is a male because the remaining arm, called the ligula, lacks suckers on the end. This arm is specialized to transport sperm packets to a female.

One of the behaviors he’s doing with Laura is called "A to B," which means he moves from one location or person to another. With Odie at starting point A, Laura taps the water at spot B, and the octopus unfurls an arm to investigate, getting a reinforcing piece of clam. "He got reinforced for his arm being there, so now he knows to go over to that spot," says Eve, and when he does, he gets another piece of food. Laura slaps the water in another area, and the maneuver plays out again. This time, Laura spritzes Odie with a spray bottle containing water from his habitat. It’s the same salinity and temperature, but it’s a different sensation, and he seems to enjoy it.

As Laura continues to work with him, she remarks that Odie has given her a little bit of a pull. "I’m waiting him out a little. I’ll wait for him to relax, and then I’ll give him food," she says.

As they work with him, they also watch his color, which, like a 1970s mood ring, indicates whether he is calm or agitated. Normal is an uneven vermilion. If he turns white, or if his skin gets spiky, something in his environment has unsettled him. The aquarists will wait until the octopus has calmed down to resume the session. They don’t want to reinforce an adverse reaction.

Throughout the 30-minute session, Eve and Laura gauge his behaviors to see if Odie stays interested. Eve says, "We try to end a session before he ends it. We want to end on a positive note. He seems very engaged and likes this sort of interaction"—Laura is pouring water on him—"so we keep going. But before he might get bored and leave, we’re going to wrap it up."

Odie always gets a toy or last bit of food at the end of his session. Today it’s a mussel frozen in a small block of ice. Laura floats it on the water, and it immediately disappears into Odie’s mantle. "Oh, goodness, he enjoys ice," Eve says. "Now he’ll probably retreat to his cave. The ice will melt and he’ll get the food. Sometimes we put toys in the ice."

At times several toys are scattered on the floor of the habitat. That’s not necessarily intentional. "We rotate his toys, and sometimes there’s a favorite toy, and he’ll stash it in his cave. Sometimes he even comes to session with a toy, holding a ball under his arms. If he really likes one, it stays in there little bit longer."

Odie seems to like round toys best, and the aquarists have a variety of balls, many of them dog toys, for him to play with.

As for favorite foods, Eve says he appears to prefer shrimp and is not always enthusiastic about silversides, a type of fish. After each session, the trainer records how much he ate of what, along with the condition of his arms and suckers (the latter can get infected if old skin doesn’t slough completely), whether he was interested, listless, or gripping a little too hard, and other behaviors. These notes, along with Odie’s feeding charts, are kept in the octopus training manual. The observations are a heads-up for the next team member working with the octopus. "At least three times a week, we get different observations on his behavior and body condition," says Eve. "Through these notes, we can communicate with the rest of the octopus training team. And as Odie’s preferences change, we can offer him something new and different."

—Karen Furnweger, web editor

Click here for Part 2 of "The Well-mannered Octopus"

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This is an extremely interesting article! I really enjoyed reading it. Very informative. I didn't really give much thought to training octopuses or of their unique personalities.

Great blog Karen! This is so interesting! Odie and his trainers are incredible!

This was such an amazing article! I had no idea octopus were trainable. And how cool to get a glimpse of Odie's personality, I love him already! I would love to meet him, I am sad to learn they have such a short life span. :( Thank you for sharing this! I am just amazed and fascinated.

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