Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Critter Tales: The Intelligent Mr. Suckers

by Abbey Greene, communications intern

Four little baby octopuses, no bigger than quarters, were carefully carried into Save The Bay’s Exploration and Aquarium Center by a local lobster fisherman in November 2014. He caught the tiny animals by accident in a lobster pot under Newport bridge as they were migrating into the Rhode Island Sound for the winter. The fisherman brought them in to make sure the babies would not become prey to bigger fish.

Save The Bay staff and volunteers placed the each of the four babies into separate storage containers, kept apart by acrylic plastic walls with tiny holes to allow water and oxygen to circulate, inside a glass tank. The Common Octopus is very territorial and aggressive towards one another by nature, so precautions were taken. But the walls were no match for one octopus. True to his nature, “Mr. Suckers” managed to stretch through the small holes in the plastic and ate his fellow octopuses, outsmarting the other babies and aquarium staff, including Save The Bay’s aquarist, Adam Kovarsky.

“They’re really intelligent,” explains Adam. “We’ve been teaching this one how to deal with different kinds of puzzles. We’ll give him his food in different lids and containers. He can unscrew lids on jars and water bottles, and he even takes apart Legos to find his food.”

Common octopuses can reach lengths of up to four-and-a-half feet long and can weigh up to 22 pounds. Over the last year-and-a-half, Mr. Suckers has just about grown into what Adam says is his full size, now reaching three feet in length.

Adults and children alike from all over the state have come to see the octopus, and Save The Bay’s Education Specialist Celina Segala says a few kids nicknamed Mr. Suckers during one of their visits. “We’ve gotten some really creative names,” shares Segala. “‘Mr. Suckers’ was one that I thought was a great name.”

According to Adam, octopuses like Mr. Suckers play a very important role in Narragansett Bay. The presence of the eight-legged creature indicates clean waters, which is good news for the Bay. Octopuses do not do well in contaminated water bodies. They also are aggressive predators and are signs of a healthy food web.

“They are a top predator,” Adam said. “These guys are voracious, they eat different things throughout the bay, like crabs and clams. They’re also a good food source for many shark species, dogfish, skates and other fish.”

To defend itself against predators, the common octopus has many tricks up its tentacles. It can change its skin color and even its texture to blend into its surroundings, allowing predators to unwittingly swim right past the hidden octopus. But if discovered, the invertebrate can release a cloud of thick, black ink to obscure the predator’s view and jet away at a speed of up to 25 mph. Thanks to its boneless body, it can squeeze into tight hiding areas. As a last resort, it can always use its sharp beak to inflict a venomous bite, normally used to paralyze its prey.

The Common Octopus is a vital part of Narragansett Bay’s ecosystem, and the Exploration Center and Aquarium is lucky to have Mr. Suckers to help spread the word about the Bay’s battle with climate change. “Our bay is productive and diverse with wildlife that need to be protected,” says Adam. “Hard work can reduce the negative possible effects. The Octopus is one of the wonders we want to live in the Bay into the foreseeable future.”

To see Mr. Suckers hide in his lair and stretch his tentacles, the public is welcome to visit the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport daily from 10-4 p.m. Adam recommends coming to ‘Feeding Frenzy,’ an after-hours activity in the aquarium when visitors can help feed all of the animals, including the octopus. This fun-filled hour occurs on the third Thursday of every month, from 5-6 p.m.