Do Octopuses Die After Giving Birth?

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Published: January 23, 2023
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Octopuses are some of the most devoted mothers in the entire animal kingdom. They will diligently guard and protect their eggs until they hatch. They even tend to them with their tentacles, cleaning them off and regulating their temperature. Octopus mothers will refuse food for months and even years as they protect and nurture their eggs so their young can safely hatch into the world to explore. But what happens to this patient and dedicated mother once her babies are out in the world? Do octopuses die after giving birth? Keep reading to find out!

The Dedication of Octopus Mothers

Blanket Octopus female diving. Blanket octopus pairs are some of the undersea world's oddest couples, with the female weighing 40,000 times more than the male.

The mother octopus stays in her den and continually attends to her eggs while they incubate.

©Sam Robertshaw/Shutterstock.com

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After mating, a female octopus puts a great deal of care into the future lives of her offspring. Mothers often take the time to strengthen their den by dragging rocks and other materials to ward off any potential predators. Some octopuses attach their eggs to the walls or ceiling of a den, taking time to interweave them into ornamental chains. Other octopus mothers place the eggs on or underneath rocks and corals, effectively shielding them from predators. Each octopus species is different. Some may lay hundreds or thousands of eggs, while others may produce a single egg capsule with up to 100 tiny embryos inside!

While her eggs incubate, the mother octopus stays in her den and continually attends to them. She carefully and continuously blows nutrient-rich water over them and grooms them in order to remove algae and other growths. This tireless dedication gives her offspring the best chance of surviving in their hostile environment. Baby octopuses are extremely fragile, so their mother’s tireless efforts are necessary to help them survive.

In fact, most octopus babies have about a one percent chance of reaching adulthood! These tiny creatures must brave a dangerous ocean full of larger predators while finding their way into the world. So it makes sense why an octopus mother sacrifices so much to give her children their best chance of making it in the world!

How Long Does It Take for Octopus Eggs To Hatch?

Octopus eggs can take quite a while to develop, although exactly how long depends on the species. The common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), for example, lives in warmer waters and has a much quicker turnaround time of only 50 days. On the other hand, the giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) lives in cold water, and it can take as long as six to seven months before her babies emerge from their eggs.

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), researchers discovered a female Graneledone boreopacifica (a type of deep-sea octopus) that cared for her eggs for an impressive four and a half years! And believe it or not, she didn’t eat the entire time! Investing so much effort and energy into caring for her eggs allowed her babies to grow bigger, giving them a higher chance of surviving once they hatched.

Do Octopuses Die After Giving Birth? 

close up of an octopus

Octopuses are semelparous, meaning they reproduce only once during their lifetime.

©iStock.com/izanbar

Once an octopus has laid her eggs, she devotes all of her energy to keeping them safe and sound. Even if she is hungry, her brain won’t let her leave her babies in order to go looking for food — it literally shuts off the impulse to eat. In an amazing yet heartbreaking show of care, the astounding octo-mom gives up her life to keep her babies safe. She stops eating and ultimately wastes away or even takes parts of her own body off in order to protect her babies. In other words, yes, octopuses die after giving birth.

Octopuses are special creatures that reproduce only once during their lifetime (they are semelparous) and then pass away. After laying a clutch of eggs, an octopus mother stops eating and puts all her energy toward protecting her eggs, eventually leading to her death by the time the eggs hatch. Some females in captivity even seem to be aware of their fate and will speed up this process by banging into the sides of their tank, tearing off pieces of skin, or even eating pieces of their own tentacles.

Sadly, octopus fathers don’t get off much easier either; some species of female octopus will kill and eat their mates, or the males die on their own a few months after mating. By the time the baby octopuses emerge from their eggs, both parents will have already died or will be close to death.

Why Do Octopuses Die After Giving Birth?

Jerome Wodinsky, a psychologist from Brandeis University, found something interesting in 1977 when he took out the optic gland of female Caribbean two-spot octopuses (Octopus hummelincki). This gland is like the pituitary gland of mammals living on land and is located between the octopus’ eyes. Without it, the female octopuses stopped taking care of their eggs and started eating more. Some even mated again! Scientists believed that the optic gland released a ‘self-destruct’ hormone, but they didn’t know what kind or how it worked.

However, researchers discovered a link between an octopus’s optic gland to changes in cholesterol levels. These changes affect the amount of steroid hormones produced, which can affect an octopus’s lifespan and behavior. It appears that signals from the optic gland may play a part in why octopuses die after they give birth since taking away this gland caused female octopuses to live longer than normal.

More recently, a group of scientists used cutting-edge genetic sequencing tools to figure out what kind of signals the optic gland produces when a female octopus reproduces. Results from the study indicated that there are four different phases of a mother octopus’ behavior and that these are all connected to the signals coming from her optic gland.

In other words, mama octopus doesn’t just get tired and worn out — her body is genetically programmed to self-destruct because of her optic gland and her DNA!

Out of the Ordinary Octopuses

Dumbo octopuses are cirrate octopuses.

©[[File:Dumbo-hires.jpg|Dumbo-hires]] – License

The dumbo octopus (Grimpoteuthis) is a strange sea creature that doesn’t tend to conform with the octopus group. Dumbo octopuses are cirrate octopuses and are special in many ways. They are known as “continuous spawners,” meaning that female octopuses carry multiple eggs all at once and usually only lay one or two of them at a time. Since it can be difficult for these octopuses to find mates in the deep ocean, they keep sperm inside their mantle and use it to fertilize their eggs when they have found suitable places to lay them, such as a piece of coral or rock.

The glass octopus (Vitreledonella richardi) is actually ovoviviparous. Instead of laying eggs outside the body as some animals do, the octopus mother carries the eggs inside her. When they are fully developed, the babies are born alive and ready to start their lives on their own. 

And then there are the lesser Pacific striped octopus (Octopus chierchiae) and the greater Pacific striped octopus (which does not have a scientific name yet). These two unique types of octopuses do things a bit differently than most other octopuses. Instead of only having one batch of eggs in their lifetime, these two species lay multiple sets of eggs throughout their lives. In other words, they do not die after giving birth but go on to give birth again and again.

Regardless of how long an octopus mother survives after her young are gone, her commitment and devotion speak volumes about her love and care for her offspring.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/:TheSP4N1SH


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About the Author

Kellianne Matthews is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on anthrozoology, conservation, human-animal relationships, and animal behavior. Kellianne has been writing and researching animals for over ten years and has decades of hands-on experience working with a variety of different animals. She holds a Master’s Degree from Brigham Young University, which she earned in 2017. A resident of Utah, Kellianne enjoys creating, exploring and learning new things, analyzing movies, caring for animals, and playing with her cats.

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