Lucja Rice, left, helps her students FKCC students Riley Martinez and Madeline Ticer. HUNTER LEDBETTER/FKCC

It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for research diver Lucja Rice, faculty with the Diving Business & Technology department at the Florida Keys Community College. On April 12, she went to check on recent find “Agnes,” a Caribbean reef octopus hidden in the rocks in the FKCC’s lagoon. During Rice’s dive, Agnes’ 200-plus eggs began to hatch, and Rice didn’t just capture the event on film, but also one baby octopus – now FKCC’s newest resident. When octopus babies are born, they immediately find crevices in which to hide from predators, and one quickly squirreled away in Rice’s Sea Life camera as a welcome stowaway. Taking baby octo back to the lab, Rice, along with a team of excited students and researchers, can continue moving forward with some ground-breaking research in their aquatic nursery.

Since 2013, FKCC’s divers have found several Caribbean reef octo-moms who use the lagoon for breeding; unfortunately, octo-dads die after mating. This academic year has seen a record of four moms, only the size of a fist, using FKCC-protected waters surrounding the college where there are few boats, and no fishing or recreational use unless sanctioned by the school. The protected waters also host a healthy supply of lobsters and stone crabs, crustaceans being the favored food supply of octopuses. Discarded shells are a good indicator of an octo-mom nesting area.

FKCC students Madeline Ticer, 22, and Riley Martinez, 19, studying marine environmental technology and marine diving technology, are now a part of a team with Patrick Rice, chief science and research officer; Lucja Rice, of the Department of Diving Business and Technology faculty; and Bill Irwin, biology. They are poised to be on the forefront of research about the genetics and habits of the Caribbean reef octopus. The team, upon finding the multiple octo-moms with a life span of only 18 months, began to ask, were these octopuses born in the lagoon and returned to hatch the next generation? Would their DNA match that of their predecessors? Also, if they are returning to their “home,” how did they navigate back after leaving as newborns?

When Ticer and Martinez began to research Caribbean reef octopuses and their lifestyle habits, they did not find any specific published studies answering their questions. Both students are eager to continue studying the octo-moms and will be looking for grants with Rice to keep studying and, hopefully, publish their own papers from Key West.

“I found RNA testing but no DNA testing,” said Ticer. Having gathered DNA from a deceased octopus, Ticer, working with Irwin, hasn’t found a viable way to read the DNA yet. Finding a DNA test that will work for an octopus will be a first, as the team cannot find any similar studies, let alone mapping their habits.

After the team gathers a readable DNA code, the next step will be to compare it to the DNA of the future existing octopuses in the lagoon. If there is over 50% match, then the team has proven that octopuses will grow, leave and return to their original home – in zoological terms, philopatry. As only one to two baby octos survive out of roughly 200-400 eggs that hatch, it’s fascinating to imagine the odds of their return. Known as solitary creatures, they do not travel in schools or pods; in fact, there is no term for an octopus group.

Rice is trying to discover how the octopuses relocate to the lagoon. One possibility common in animals is magnetic reception, when an organism uses the earth’s magnetic field to perceive location. Since octopuses are famously intelligent invertebrates, is it possible that they are merely using their memory?

“Everything we do is about trying to learn – it’s called conservation aquaculture,” said Rice. For now, baby octo, the size of a thumb tip, is thriving at FKCC. The team already has seen mother Agnes pass away, fading in color to an almost white after the eggs hatched.

“Water is getting warmer, and we don’t know if the mothers take a summer break, and return in the fall,” said Rice. The team cannot predict when octo-moms will arrive, but they are eager for them to return.

Fun Facts about the Octopus

The Caribbean reef octopus is a master of disguise and can change colors.

Crabs, shrimp and lobsters rank among their favorite foods, though some can attack larger prey, including sharks.

If threatened, octopuses shoot an inky fluid that darkens the water, confusing the aggressor. The octopus can also change to gray, brown, pink, blue or green to blend in with its surroundings.

An octopus can weigh from 6 to 22 pounds.

An octopus can move up to 25 mph.

Octopuses can be cannibalistic and eat their own.

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