Opal and Eve“She’s spunky and curious and quick and energetic.”

That’s senior aquarist Eve Barrs’ condensed profile of Opal, the giant Pacific octopus in the Oceans gallery. Eve is a member of the octopus training team, and she’s invited me behind the scenes to observe Opal’s daily session.

Opal already stands out among Shedd’s pantheon of beloved octopuses, figuratively and literally. She’s quick to process new experiences, thanks in part to the way the training team members slowly introduce unfamiliar people or objects.

“In a new situation,” Eve says, “she’ll raise her head all the way up, almost stalk-like, so she can look at everything. We allow her the time to do that so she can take in the whole environment. She observes for several seconds, then she settles down and it’s business as usual.”

The aquarist says Opal has another interesting behavior when she is presented with something novel: “She sprays through her siphon.” The muscular tube on the left side of the octopus’s mantle, or body, is used for respiration and locomotion, and with a sudden contraction it can propel the animal away with a powerful jet of water. The octopus controls the volume of water she expels.

“When she sprays, there’s so much water, it’s like a garden hose!” Eve says. “When she first arrived and we introduced something new, we all got it. We’re trained not to react, which could reinforce the behavior, so we had a few days with soaked shirts.”

Eve adds that once Opal siphoned them, she was “polite” for the rest of the session. And this behavior has decreased. “Because it was in response to people or equipment she’d never seen before, my interpretation is that the behavior is tied to curiosity. She didn’t move away or go back to her cave, which she would have done if she’d been uneasy.

“In the ocean, she could use the siphon during hunting to spray debris or sand out of the way, similar to the way beluga whales blow water into sandy sea floors to uncover prey. We know that octopuses have chemoreceptors and a strong olfactory sense, so flushing a nook or cranny on a reef could help her detect what’s in there. She’d be applying that exploratory behavior to new situations here.”

Opal apparently enjoys getting splashed back. During this training session, Eve is assisted by another member of the octopus team, senior aquarist Laura Hilstrom, a cephalopod expert and aficionado who cares for the nautiluses in Wild Reef. Laura is pouring a gentle stream of water from a bottle onto one of the octopus’s arms.

Opal“Laura is giving Opal a secondary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer might be food, and secondary reinforcers are things she has learned to like, such as us pouring or sprinkling water onto her suckers.” All this talk about reinforcers refers to positive reinforcement training, the method Shedd uses with animals across the taxonomic board. “In the same way that you reward your dog with a scratch behind the ears for a behavior well done, we reward Opal with water pours,” Eve explains.

“We can’t know for sure that she likes it,” the aquarist continues, “but she moves toward the water and rotates her suckers upward to feel it, and her suckers are the most sensitive part of her body.”

“I drizzle the water about midway down her tentacles,” says Laura. “Her reaction is pleasant, and it extends her training session, which is helpful if we want to look at her longer. I think it’s enjoyable for all of us.” 

Opal does appear to relish this gentle water play. “What a lovely octopus you are,” Eve coos.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our special features for Cephalopod Awareness Days. Look for one more Facebook post tomorrow. And we’ll have more stories about Opal and her training sessions in coming weeks.

Karen Furnweger, web editor