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The Octopus – General Natural History Notes & Care of the Common Tropical Octopus, Octopus cyaneus, In Captivity

Please welcome back Frank Indiviglio with another excellent article.
With their sharp eyesight, inquisitive personalities and large brains, octopuses seem far removed from their relatives – the 100, 000 or so species of clams, scallops, slugs, snails and other creatures that make up the Phylum Mollusca (the Mollusks). Over 700 types of octopus, squid, cuttlefish and chambered nautilus are known, with odd deep sea forms being discovered each year.

Octopuses have much going for and against them as pets. They are, without a doubt, the most intelligent of the invertebrates, and often seem to rival much more “advanced” creatures in brain power. Able to distinguish and associate various shapes with a food reward, some have even learned to unscrew glass jars to obtain food. In one laboratory, cameras revealed that an octopus was leaving its aquarium each night to prey upon crabs held in a neighboring tank. Each morning, the octopus was found back in his own aquarium, having crossed several feet of dry shelf space in his nocturnal travels! One that I kept would, according to my grandmother, “watch her” as she prepared dinner (octopus see very well, and notice movement outside their aquariums). Unnerved by the thought of our pet witnessing the demise of his relatives, she would cover the aquarium with a towel on those days when she cooked octopus or squid for dinner!

Common Tropical OctopusOn the down side, however, all species studied are quite short-lived (2 years at most) – quite odd considering their complex lifestyles. Males generally expire right after mating, and females survive only long enough to see their eggs through hatching.

The species most often seen in the pet trade is the common tropical octopus, Octopus cyaneus (please note that there is a good deal of confusion as to the identification of this species). Growing to a maximum length of 12 inches, it does well if provided excellent water quality (manage it as you would a delicate reef fish) and a secure retreat in which to hide. Octopuses absolutely need to hide and are intolerant of disturbance (although once acclimated many will become quite bold at feeding time). It is also important to avoid suddenly putting on a light if the room in which the aquarium sits is dark. When disturbed, octopuses release a dark-colored ink (sepia), which can be toxic to the animal in close quarters.

Bear in mind that octopuses consume large amounts of food and produce copious waste products – good filtration, frequent water quality tests and water changes are vital if you are to keep them successfully. Give your octopus the largest aquarium possible (this will help with water quality and in reducing stress on the animal) and be sure the lid is weighed down or otherwise fastened. The common tropical octopus does well at temperatures of 76-78 F. As most species are nocturnal, you should equip the aquarium with a bulb designed for nighttime viewing so as to be able to observe your pet without disturbing it.

Most octopus favor crabs, shrimp, clams, scallops, mussels and other shellfish, but usually take fish as well. Seafood markets are useful sources of food for your pet – as we know little of their nutritional requirements, I suggest providing as much dietary variety as possible. The wide range of frozen marine foods now available will provide you with a great many options as well.

Other species sometimes offered for sale include the red or pygmy octopus, O. bocki, which is highly nocturnal, and the common octopus, O. vulgaris. As the common octopus occupies a range spanning the Mediterranean, the Sea of JapBlue-ringed Octopusan and the Eastern Atlantic, it is likely a fairly hardy creature. However, with a leg-span approaching 3 feet, it is too large for most home aquariums.

It is important to remember that all octopuses, even very small ones, can inflict painful bites with their sharp, parrot-like beaks, and that they can never be considered “tame” enough to handle. Most if not all produce venom in order to subdue their prey, and even venoms not shown to be dangerous to people can cause severe or even fatal reactions in particularly sensitive individuals. Amazingly, the tiny the blue-ringed octopus, Hapalochlaena maculosa, quite capable of killing a human with one bite, is sometimes offered for sale. Learn to recognize this species and avoid it at all costs.

Breeding octopuses in captivity is difficult, as is raising the young. Recent research at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography indicated that dietary factors, especially the absence of fatty acids such as DHA and EPA, are responsible for high mortalities among those that do hatch in aquariums. Enriched brine shrimp have been used with some success, but more variety is likely needed. I would experiment with various species of marine shrimp, worms, plankton and tiny marine creatures seined from eel grass beds and other marine habitats (check the legality of collecting before doing so).

Octopus husbandry is in need of much attention by serious hobbyists. These fascinating, complex creatures are impacted by habitat loss and collection for the food, bait and pet trade. Breeding them in captivity will certainly take pressure off wild populations and help in understanding what they need to survive in the wild.

Please write in with your own thoughts and questions. Thanks…until next time, Frank.

You can see photos of hatchling octopuses and read about a captive breeding effort at:http://www.bbc.co.uk/norfolk/your/a-z_norfolk/a-z_octopus.shtml


  1. avatar

    I would like to disprove some facts you provided I got a pacific brown octopi and my little girl is tamed beyond believe.She takes food right out of my hand and has never bitten me she also likes to play with me during water changes.she crawls all over me without changing in to her attack pattern I’ve had her for months and I feed her everyday by had which she gently wraps two tentacles around my fingers and rubs them up and down my fingers as she uses her other tentacles to eat her pray. she also crawls all over my hands while I am in there and has not bitten me then either. she has not even tried to bite when I have food in my hands for her and she also goes crazy when she sees me walk in the room she climbs to the top of her tank when i open it and pulls my hand in to play . I have also switched her schedule to where she is out at all times of the day and even when her light is on.
    She also likes to have her head rubs between her eyes.

  2. avatar

    thanks for your comments and insight, Destiny. Individuals can vary amongst octopi just like people, sounds like you have a great specimen.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.