Alaska Pacific University researchers studying octopuses

Published: Oct. 4, 2017 at 5:44 PM AKDT
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At Alaska Pacific University, there's an unusual sight at one of the labs.

Two Giant Pacific octopuses named Darwin and Sprite are currently residing on campus.

Professor David Scheel has been studying the unique creatures' behavior since 1995.

"They do things that humans don't normally think of as complex behaviors, so when we change our appearance we blush, but octopuses can change their appearance, they can put on different color patterns across their skin they can change their texture and they can change their poses, how they hold their body," Scheel said.

While he teaches in Alaska, Professor Scheel's studies have led him and other researchers to a new discovery about the "Gloomy Octopus" in Jervis Bay, Australia.

"We've found maybe 15 or 16 octopuses at this site and they're all kind of hanging out in dens that are within arms reach of one another and they interact a lot," Scheel said.

These interactions, Scheel said are unexpected behaviors for creatures normally regarded as being solitary.

"The octopuses that we're watching down in Australia at this new site we've discovered are doing all of those things to signal to one another with their bodies about their intentions and how serious they are or how willing they are to stand down from a conflict," Scheel said.

As discoveries are made down under, students at APU are hoping to find out new information like how to tell the age of Giant Pacific octopuses and what they eat.

Caitlin Marsteller, a grad student in the Master's of Environmental Science program said she's focused on predator and prey behavior.

"We find that octopuses definitely have preferences of crabs. The majority of their middens, which is a small pile of prey remains that's left outside of their den in the intertida, is primarily made up of crab species and basically what I'm looking into is whether they prefer one of those species over the others," Marsteller said.

Paul Bennetts, a second year student earning his master's degree, said he's focused on studying the ages of octopuses, which is hard to determine.

"Part of the reason is that they have a large variability in growth between individuals, but also they're heavily impacted by the amount of food they get, the types of food they get as well as water temperature and this creates a really broad spectrum of organism sizes," Bennetts said. "Since they don't all grow at the same rate, it makes it difficult to get them into size or age cohorts and track them."

Professor Scheel said by understanding more about octopus behaviors, humans could learn from them too.

"They're also complex animals with fascinating behaviors and so by studying them we can come to better understand how we got to be complex animals with our own fascinating behaviors," Scheel said.

Darwin, Scheel said, is also helping researchers determine if there are other octopus species in Prince William Sound and a paper is expected to be published in October.