Octopus and aquarist at Hatfield Marine Science Center.

An octopus and an aquarist at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Sea Grant. See the full album

Jan. 21, 2021
By Jens Odegaard

We are social creatures. Our brains fine-tuned to process social information. It’s theorized that this social bent is why we attribute human emotion, intent and characteristics to animals.

When we baby-talk the family dogs, or give them love and hugs when they’re suffering, it’s not necessarily a big deal. They are pets after all, and, more importantly, they are mammals. They tend to display what we perceive as emotions in ways that are similar to humans. For example, in responding to trauma they might whine and whimper.  

But attributing emotions to other animals in care settings presents problems. Especially when the animal isn’t a mammal, is highly intelligent and has a 16-foot arm span.

Giant Pacific octopuses are often popular display animals at aquariums and zoos, and when veterinarian and aquarist caretakers are trying to evaluate their health, they have to be extra cautious.

Because of their intelligence and the way they interact with people “anyone who works with a cephalopod, particularly a giant Pacific octopus is going to say they have emotion, but can we scientifically prove that? No,” said Dr. Tim Miller-Morgan, an assistant professor in the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine. He's also the extension veterinarian for Oregon Sea Grant and a consulting veterinarian at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. “Cephalopods are notorious for being incredibly hard to interpret their behavior and people like to anthropomorphize the animals that they work with a lot, especially … octopuses,” added Meghan Holst, a 2014 graduate of Oregon State in marine biology and a biologist at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco. She and Miller-Morgan worked together when she was an aquarist at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 2016-17.

Because of this tendency to anthropomorphize, caretakers sometimes let their own emotions take over when making decisions. “People really tend to respond emotionally to the animal's behavior and what they see, but when you have such a hard time interpreting their behavior, those emotions can kind of get in the way of actually making a decision that is best for that animal,” Holst said.

While working at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and caring for giant Pacific octopuses, Holst realized she wanted a way to help remove her and her colleagues’ emotions from the equation. Specifically, she wanted a way to make qualitative, rather than subjective, decisions about end-of-life care as they related to senescence. 

Giant Pacific octopuses typically live only three to five years, and senescence is the reproductive period which corresponds to the end of their lives. Like salmon, they only breed once before dying. During this period, their behavior changes and their bodies begin to break down. It’s hard for caretakers to assess whether an octopus is stressed or just showing natural signs of senescence and what corresponding steps need to be taken for its welfare. Steps like taking the animal off display or, if quality of life is no longer good, euthanasia.   

“When I had all these questions about trying to quantify these qualitative observations we had about cephalopods and what that meant for their welfare, I of course talked to Dr. Miller-Morgan and got some advice from him on how to evaluate those things,” Holst said. “He’s the primary veterinarian for the Oregon Coast Aquarium fish and invertebrates.”

Holst and Miller-Morgan decided to build out research in this area and looked across the Atlantic Ocean for inspiration in solving their Pacific puzzle. The European Union had recently released a matrix tool for observing cephalopod welfare as part of a broader set of guidelines on animal research. The pair adapted and rebuilt it to be a species specific health and wellness assessment tool rather than a generalized one.  

“So we took that template and then started applying it to the giant Pacific octopus. Essentially it's a scoring system. You would evaluate the animal over time, and then you could track those scores and that would help you make a decision,” Miller-Morgan said. “We're putting all that together into a matrix and coming up with a score: one being healthy and four being we really need to have a discussion about [end-of-life care].”

This matrix is the first qualitative tool of its kind for giant Pacific octopuses, and Holst and Miller-Morgan published their findings from its use in September 2020. For their matrix, they selected specific criteria within the following categories: feeding behavior, response to stimulus, food consumption, apathetic/withdrawn behavior, stereotypic behaviors, skin integrity and skin texture. For example in evaluating food consumption, “the animals will go off feed, so they become anorectic where they stop eating and slowly start to lose weight,” Holst said. The matrix ranks that change from one to four as it occurs over time.

Another example is the categorization of how the octopus respond to stimuli. “Do they change color? What kind of position is their body in?” Miller-Morgan said. “So an animal that is quite compromised, oftentimes will curl its tentacles up kind of over its mantle or over its head. And it looks kind of like a pumpkin the way it does that. And then it will be very pale, and it will stay pale. It won't change colors in response to stimuli.”

Holst and Miller-Morgan recruited caretaking teams at aquariums across North America — from Vancouver, British Columbia to Myrtle Beach, Florida. With a total of 40 giant Pacific octopuses in the initial study, caretakers used the matrix scoring system each week to assess the animals and aid in decision-making processes. “This tool was really meant to empower [caretaker’s] intuition,” Holst said. “It's never to replace it.” Miller-Morgan added: “There's still a little bit of subjectivity, but it helps us all talk about this, which was one of the big drivers.”

Caretakers have found it very helpful. “The response from the aquarium community has been overwhelming,” Holst said. “I get emails all the time asking follow-up questions, but primarily just saying, ‘I used this to help me make a really hard decision.’”

She also relies on it in her current caretaking work at Aquarium of the Bay. “It's been helping me a lot, and I'm just absolutely floored that it's helping other people feel empowered to make the decisions that they're making,” Holst said.

The assessment tool has proved so useful that many aquariums and other institutions have adopted it as part of their standard end-of-life decision-making process. It also holds promise as a building block for expanding research into other areas helping us better understand how to interact with and care for these intelligent creatures.

Holst is pursuing this research for her doctoral studies at the University of California, Davis. “Cephalopod research is coming to the absolute forefront right now. It's so necessary. In the United States specifically, which we talk about in our publication, there are no welfare regulations for invertebrates. It's all geared toward vertebrates,” she said. “I think we'll continue to just absolutely erupt with research; especially because there's so many people pushing to have cephalopods and invertebrates protected by law. Because they deserve the same rights as vertebrates do, in many of our opinions."