If you think romance is complicated, you'll be comforted by the fact that love in the natural world can be much more challenging than anything humans will ever go through. Such is the case with the octopus. Many people may think these sea creatures have it made. With so many suction cups, Lionel Richey's "Stuck On You" might come to mind. Of course, there's also eight arms that might leave others thinking of Fleetwood Mac and "Hold Me." But it's matters of the heart, not appendages, that make the octopus an unusual Valentine's Day story.
Have you ever heard someone say, "My heart skipped a beat the moment I laid eyes on her." The male octopus can relate. Tennessee Aquarium outreach educator Bethany Lloyd shares this information attributed to: M. J. Wells (1979). The heartbeat of Octopus vulgaris Journal of Experimental Biology (78), 87-104
"The octopus has some amazing hearts," said Lloyd. "There are three of them: two branchial hearts to pump blood through vessels in the gills and one systemic heart that takes blood from the gills to the rest of the body. The two branchial hearts beat simultaneously and the systemic heart contracts after the branchials."
"The systemic heart also does something very strange when an octopus gets excited or startled," said Lloyd. "In Octopus vulgaris, the systemic heart skips beats, pausing long enough to be considered a very temporary cardiac arrest. Luckily, having three hearts is helpful during these arrest episodes, as the two remaining hearts will continue beating and pick up the slack. Fittingly enough for Valentine’s Day, this cardiac arrest happens during mating; in the lab, the hearts of male octopuses have been shown to skip beats when a female octopus enters the tank, when copulation begins, and each time a spermatophore (sperm packet) is passed from the male to the female. However, considering that all cephalopod mating can be fraught with violence (sharp beaks can leave wounds much more serious than “love bites”) and is a fleeting connection between individuals, the heart skipping beats is very likely not a “romantic” gesture. In humans and other mammals, hearts tend to speed up when an individual is excited, not stop."
At the Tennessee Aquarium, our giant Pacific octopuses get a lot of love from our keepers. Not only are their basic requirements taken care of, aquarists like Danny Alexander make sure they get enrichment activities. These animals are very intelligent, so they need toys and puzzles to keep their minds stimulated. So we gave one of our giant Pacific octopus an underwater video camera to play with for awhile. It places the viewer in the embrace of this amazing creature.
With three hearts and eight, sucker-filled arms to wrap around you, what's not to love about an octopus? So it may be fitting to share this musical tribute by Dalmation Rex and the Eigentones.