[Octopus]: Varys, our brooding O. mercatoris

Jan 18, 2008
This is the first entry of a journal to document our first cephalopod experience. We made an impulsive purchase of an unidentified octopus on 12/22/07, an easy date to remember as it was our anniversary gift to ourselves. We named it Varys, after the the Master of Whisperers (a cryptic, cunning character known for disguises in George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series). We knew that the octo was collected less than a week before from the coast of Florida by friends of our LFS owners, and thanks to helpful input from members of Reef Central and videos of her first introduction to the aquarium (and yes, we have since removed the dendrophyllias and tubastreas!):

... we were able to identify that we had an adult O. mercatoris. The octo took up residence under a piece of liverock and was completely nocturnal. We read up on the species and were pleased at how voraciously it was eating (a crab, snail, silverside, crawdad, basically whatever we offered-every night since day one.)


Then, on 1/14/08, we added a really nice emerald crab, and instead of an empty exoskeleton outside the entrance to her den the next morning, there was the emerald crab alive and well. We didn't worry, the previous offering had been a pretty big crawdad- maybe the octopus was still full. The next night, my wife remembers in retrospect, she was up in the middle of the night letting a dog out, and decided to turn on the red light and watch the octopus. Contrary to expectation, Varys was not out and about. However, she was able to see the octopus writhing around and undulating in the burrow, and didn't see the emerald crab. My wife assumed she'd missed the hunt and the octopus was under there eating the crab. However, the following morning, the crab was spotted again, alive and well, and the 2 entrances to the burrow were now completely blocked off with rubble and shells.

We feared the worst, that it might be the behavior of impending death, and again there were no sightings of the octopus and the crab survived a third night. We didn't want to ignore a potential carcass under the rock, so on 1/17/08 we finally decided to have a look. To our amazement and complete delight, there was Varys, doing her best to cover over and protect a small clutch of at least half a dozen 8-9mm elongated eggs!


We very carefully set the rock back down, only now the walled-off entrances were disturbed, so we were able to observe her behavior a little. She was hovering right under her eggs, and using several arms to "fondle" or "caress" them. She also kept one eye on us, and used a couple of other arms to eject some disturbed pieces of rubble. Probably thinking "stupid, stupid irritating humans.... I thought I trained them better than this...."

Since then, she's refused all food items, including cyclopeeze, jettisoning them with a quick squirt. She walled herself off completely again on 1/19/08, and we haven't disturbed her since then.

We're now making plans for rearing juvies, choosing to be optimistic about the eggs being fertile. Only time will tell...
That's pretty much all we have to share at this point. We are extremely glad to have an online forum since we have zero experience, and please do not hesitate to give us input- we'd greatly appreciate advice, comments, or gentle reprimands...

Greg and Jen Holland
good luck! dwhatley is certainly our merc husbandry expert at this point, and it will be fascinating to see how her techniques developed for Trapper and her offspring work out for an unrelated merc!

There is an excellent chance that Vary has viable eggs. Great shot of them by the way, I have never seen what they look like :oops:. It is interesting that you see a low count since Trapper only had 6 hatchlings (Miss Broody had more but I don't know how many since I had escapees from the nets).

Continue to offer Cyclop-eeze near the outside of Vary's den but do not "blow" it into her den. Both my females ate this way through their brooding. However, Miss Broody, is now nowhere to be found and may think she is brooding eggs again (this is not supposed to be viable) and is not eating (assuming she is still alive an barricaded behind the shell I have located in an unusual spot). I noticed heavy eating with Miss Broody just before she started refusing normal food so hopfully this will sustain Vary for awhile and she will become hungry and eat (this was the case with Miss Broody but she would only eat the Cyclop-eeze after some point in the process). You might also try using an air line and a small, headless shrimp or freshly killed crab (trapper took quick frozen mithrax) near her any opening you can find near her den (do not offer live, this seems to represent a threat to the eggs and she will blot it away). Be very patient and try dandling it there for about half an hour (you might wait a couple of days so that she is hungry). Twice this technique has worked but now I am at a loss as to what to do as I cannot be sure Miss Broody is where I think she is and I am not sure she is alive (I did see HideNSeek come out from that area last night so he may be the one moving things about and not Miss Broody).

When the babies start hatching try to capture them within 24 hours. You should see little white "ticks" on the glass that you can coax up to the surface. I preferred using my hand or a very fine net for this as using a turkey baster made it difficult to release them to the breeder net (they would stick to the inside). When the babies hatch expect a 5 - 10 day hatching with 2 - 5 per night. Be sure the breeder net has a selection of small shells to choose from (more than the number of fry in the net).


An arm emerges....

Today we offered Varys a thawed mysis shrimp by pipetting it into the gravel right next to one narrow opening to her den. She waited a moment before an arm began investigating and then the mysis disappeared.

Thereafter, she responded immediately to the pipette by waving arms outside the den to collect more pieces of mysis (directly from the pipette and sometimes with almost frenetic enthusiasm) - at one point she ignored the mysis and wrapped 2 arms around the pipette, pulling it steadily toward the entrance (to investigate it, I suppose). After all, it was clearly a "mysis dispenser" -- might want to look into having one on hand right inside the den.

It's a relief to see some activity. She seemed to be ravenous! Later this evening she also accepted an offering of cyclopeeze for dessert. Gotta admire the dedication it takes to be a brooding octo-mom!

Thanks for the feeding tips, D.
Most excellent! If my experience holds, she should eat nightly with no further problems (you may have an occassional night of minimal feeding). I didn't try frozen mysis (I don't know why not since I keep plenty on hand) and I think variety is a very good idea so please keep reporting what she will and will not accept. Trapper also showed that frantic arm movement (no so much with Miss Broody but she continued to eat larger shrimp much longer than Trapper, was likely younger when she laid eggs and was tank raised and accustomed to being hand fed). I am really enjoying your reports and don't feel so much like the Lone Mercatoris Ranger!

I would nix the idea of keeping a pipette sitting inside the den. Both my girls were very clear about not wanting things put inside, even food as keeping the den clean seems to be an important part of the brooding process. And, yes, you will likely be spending at least 30 min a night with her :sleeping:
dwhatley;108909 said:
I would nix the idea of keeping a pipette sitting inside the den. Both my girls were very clear about not wanting things put inside, even food as keeping the den clean seems to be an important part of the brooding process.

Sorry for the confusion... we didn't mean to imply that we were actually thinking about putting the pipette in the den... it was just a poor attempt at humor -- octopus mind-reading!

At any rate... she accepted frozen mysids and/or cyclopeez for three straight nights before rejecting all attempts last night (1/24). Tried krill first... it was a no-go. She just blew it away from the entrance. Tried cyclopeez next and that was completely ignored. She's still moving around, so no worries there. We were thinking of trying very small pieces of silverside tonight... maybe try mysids again if that doesn't work.

We're trying to set up a culture of large amphipods (gammarus) this weekend... The math associated with feeding baby octopuses is a bit intimidating... 2-3 amphipods/mysids per day times 12 babies (very optimistic)... equals 24-36 per day... times 7 days in a week... you can all see where this is going. There's no way we could harvest that many from our existing tanks so I got permission to collect the filters from the tanks at work with the hopes that I can induce some of the amphipods living in them to come out into a refugium at home. (All of my colleagues are really excited and eager to help any way they can!) I'm sure we'll be buying live mysids online in the very near future too, but this amphipod thing gives us something to do.

Sorry for the mundane nature of this post, but it's just a bunch of "hurry-up and wait" on this end. :)
Oops, guess it was similar to my family suggesting that I main-line coffee!

Keep offering tiny dead food daily. There were a few days my girls just were not hungry but (I mentioned that you might see this on occassion) for most of the brooding cycle, they ate daily.

As for mine, Miss Broody is nowhere to be seen and I am afraid she may have died behind the shell that is wedged in the LR. A serpent star had been staying very near the shell up until two days ago (I could sometimes locate my octos by the location of the serpents) but has now moved to a different part of the tanks so I fear the worst for her. The two males continue to eat regularly and the five (or six, still don't know for sure) babies are growing faster than their parents did on Cyclop-eeze and small shore shrimp. I have some frozen Krill and clam that I will try to feed later this week. None of my others would eat either but your success with different food suggests I should try again. Thanks!
Interesting observation tonight. We tried a new offering- a small ~5mm chunk of clam. Varys ignored it on the pipette, and so we deposited it at the entrance to her den. She continued to ignore the clam offering, and we were thinking about removing it... especially when we saw that it had attracted the attention of a decent-sized bristleworm, which started down after it.

As soon as the bristleworm got close, within 1-2 mm distance from "her" chunk of clam, that arm came whipping out and she snatched the clam. Then she seemed to like it... waved around for another piece. After the bristleworm was out of sight, we deposited another bit of clam for Varys, but the bristleworm was apparently poised and ready to go because it immediately appeared again and honed in on the clam and started to abscond with it. Varys shot out an arm and got herself "stung" trying to take her clam back! The bristleworm won that round and Varys was left literally "shaking it off" with little flicks and wiggles on the end of the arm that touched the bristleworm.

We were worried about our girl, since they have such sensitive skin, but she seems to be ok. Since then, she's accepted 4 more tasty chunks of clam, which is more than she's ever eaten since holing up with her eggs! =)
Somewhere in one of my posts (Miss Broody, I think) I also saw a similar, "Thats MINE" reaction with both a bristleworm and a serpent star (I think the serpent incident was with Trapper) so your posted observation helps to confirm some of my own notes on behavior.

I have tons of bristles in the larger tank (not as bad in the smaller one) and plan to try my gravel vacuum soon to reduce the number but a lot of them live in the LR in addition to the sand where the vacuum won't do much good. They don't seem to be a problem for the octos though and help keep the excess feeding (especially with the babies) from polluting the tank. If Miss Broody has, indeed expired, they will help there as well but I have not seen a group of them clustering anywhere. Not a fitting end but nature helping out in my mini piece of the ocean.
Rigby does it too... he lets the bristles slowly come out and when he thinks they have gotten close enough he swats at them and they retract to start the journy again and he will wait until they get close and do it again...
We had a glimpse of Varys' eggs with the red penlight tonight and didn't see embryos, but maybe that's not sufficient illumination. On the bright side, no sign of fouling or decay, either. Hope springs eternal =)

Ate 2 ghost shrimp (freshly killed), 3-4 frozen mysids, and some pieces of silverside tonight. We're having a pretty good time with feeding this girl. She makes us laugh. She's quirky.

She takes her time, but hustles to beat the bristleworm if need be.

If she really doesn't want it, she blows it away, otherwise it's just a matter of time. We've made the mistake of trying to remove a piece of food we thought she wasn't interested in with the pipette, and she will snatch it away from the pipette as fast as she can.

If we get involved doing something else and don't put the next food item in in a timely manner, she waves at us.

Oh, and you DON'T put any offerings near tiny den entrance number one. Only near tiny den entrance number two. She will routinely blow the food back from entrance one, but will accept it immediately moments later from entrance two. (These entrances are approximately 3 cm apart). No idea why this is the law, but apparently it is. =)
I can't help with what to expect with the eggs as I have yet to see even a glimpse of one :hmm:.

Varys is certainly eating very well. Trapper would take one crab or one shrimp a night (I did not know to try the Cyclop-eeze until feeding the fry). I wonder if she would have taken more if I tried again later but then she did not eat as early as my captive raised. My four males will only take one shrimp OR an occassional live crab (they are eating more crabs now than ever before, however) so I extremely impressed with both the quantity and variety you are able to feed.

One thing I did get Trapper to do (but not Miss Broody) was to extend an arm and touch my finger on the glass (my finger was on the outside). She would only do this once a night, usually in acknowledgement that I was there to feed, and would do it with me most nights once she started.

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