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This Week’s Creature Feature ... A Tentacle by Any Other Name

What to call a giant octopus?

The National Zoo’s new giant Pacific octopus will pick its own name, but suggestions from local kids are welcome. The zoo asks invertebrate enthusiasts ages five to 15 to submit their favorite name for the rapidly growing cephalopod.
    The only hitch is that the zoo isn’t sure if the octopus, now the size of a grapefruit, is a boy or a girl yet. So you may want to stay away from suggestions like Ralph.
    “We’re thinking it’s a she,” says biologist Tamie Gray DeWitt. “A lot of times you don’t know.”
    So how can you tell if an octopus is a Ms. or a Mr.? You have to count tentacles.
    “If it’s a male, the third arm to the right is called a hectocotylus,” explains DeWitt. “When it’s full grown, the hectocotylus has no suckers on the tip so the male can take a sperm packet out of its mantle and hand it to the female.”
    How polite!
    With so much movement in all the tentacles, biologists are still straining to get a good look. Octopuses also love a cramped space and — with their beak the only solid part of their bodies — the cephalopods can get into some tiny nooks in the tank. The last giant pacific Octopus to live in the zoo was a female named Octavius, who lived to be approximately four years old.
    “Because we don’t raise them in captivity it’s hard to tell how long they live,” says DeWitt. Female octopuses lay about 80,000 eggs, which would clog tanks and filtration systems. Since there is no captive breeding program for them, researchers have to guess at age and lifespans when they capture a wild cephalopod.
    Giving birth is a death sentence for octopuses: The males die after insemination and the females after six months of caring for the eggs. The National Zoo’s celibate giant Pacific octopuses live longer, up to the ripe old age of five. They can also reach their maximum size, about 14 feet from tentacle to tentacle.
    “They have a nice safe life with us,” Dewitt says. In the wild, “fish eat their arms, and they’re good eating for us, too. They’re wanted a lot for their food. We can keep them alive longer because they have no threats, and they’re spoiled rotten.”
    Because of this spoiling, octopuses at the zoo rarely ink. When their tank opens, they get a reward, be it an enrichment toy or a chance to playfully attack the cleaning net. This interaction is crucial for octopuses because of their intelligence.
    “They open jars, do puzzles. They’re so intelligent,” says DeWitt. “We do enrichment research with them. Every day we offer them different objects like dog toys or puzzles. They change colors and patterns as they play.”
    How smart are these invertebrates?
    Smarter than the average house pet.
    Unlike cats and dogs, octopuses can determine the quality and quantity of a reward. If you tempt an octopus with five shrimp at the end of a maze, it will complete the task faster than if you offered it only one shrimp. Offer it a crab, a favorite treat, and the octopus will compete the puzzle faster still.
    Because of these invertebrates’ intelligence, zookeepers will let this octopus pick its own name. Saturday, December 17, keepers will put their favorite suggestions inside a number of new enrichment toys and place them in the tank. The octopus will then pick up an item and with it choose a name. At Bay Weekly, we’ve picked Squeezey and Cthulhu, but, alas, we’re all too old to qualify for entry.
    To get your child’s suggestion considered, email kidspost@washpost.com by Dec. 12 and remember to put Octopus in the subject line. Good Luck!�