Do Octopuses Die After Giving Birth?

Mother octopus died after giving birth

Octopuses have many abilities, like camouflaging themselves and even regrowing lost limbs. However, one of their strangest characteristics is that they die after giving birth. But is this really the case for all octopuses?

In general, octopuses die shortly after giving birth. After laying their eggs, females stop eating and dedicate their energy to caring for their young.

Meanwhile, male octopuses experience a similar process of decline called senescence, becoming less active and ultimately dying within a few months of mating.

This article offers a deep dive into this unique act of maternal sacrifice in octopuses. We’ll answer many fascinating questions about octopus reproduction, octopus eggs, and more.

What Happens to Octopus Mothers After Giving Birth?

Octopus laying eggs in underwater around coral

After laying their eggs, octopus mothers enter a stage of rapid decline, ultimately sacrificing their lives to care for their eggs.

During their final days, they gently clean the eggs and protect them from predators. This process continues until the eggs hatch, at which point the mother octopus passes away.

Let’s try to break down what really happens to mother octopuses before and after giving birth:

A Few Days Before Birthing

The mother octopus actively seeks out a safe and secluded place, like a den or cave, to lay her eggs. She might appear paler than usual and have less interest in hunting for food.

During Birthing

The mother releases thousands of tiny eggs over a period that can last several hours. She then carefully arranges them within her chosen den, often attaching them in delicate strands.

Watch this video to see what octopus eggs look like:

Mama Octopus Waits Patiently For Her Eggs To Hatch | The Dodo Wild Hearts

Right After Laying Eggs

A dramatic shift occurs within the mother’s body, causing her to completely lose her appetite. From this moment on, all her focus shifts to ensuring the survival of her eggs. 

This includes blowing fresh water over them and fiercely defending them from potential predators. Aside from these, there are other complex changes that happen within the body of a mother octopus. 

For instance, the optic gland ramps up the production of specific hormones. This surge is what sets off a wave of physical and behavioral changes.

Studies demonstrate that the optic gland triggers a change in how the mother octopus’s body processes cholesterol. This disruption increases the production of steroid hormones. 

These hormones effectively switch off the octopus’s digestive system, preventing her from feeling hunger or processing food. This marks the start of the mother octopus’s starvation and, ultimately, her self-destruction.

Days to Weeks After Laying Eggs

The mother octopus continues her devotion to protecting her eggs. She spends all her time keeping the eggs oxygenated and safe. 

During this time, the effects of starvation and natural changes within her body cause her to become weaker and weaker by the hour.

Interestingly, in the final stages of their life, some mother octopuses may start ripping their skin or eating the tips of their arms. 

While the reason behind this is still being studied, researchers think that these behaviors could be linked to the same hormonal imbalances triggered by their optic glands.

End of Life

The length of time an octopus mother takes care of her eggs (brooding) varies depending on the species — some octopus species brood for a couple of months while others brood for longer. 

Usually, the water temperature and egg size affect how long this stage lasts. But ultimately, the mother octopus becomes extremely weak and will pass away around the time the eggs hatch.

To learn more about the lifecycle of an octopus, read our guide about octopus lifespan.

Fun Fact: In 2007, a deep-sea octopus (Graneledone boreopacifica) set a record for brooding the longest egg incubation ever observed. She watched over her eggs for a remarkable 53 months. 

Why Do Octopuses Die After Giving Birth?

Mother octopus protecting her eggs

Octopuses have a special gland behind their eyes called the optic gland. After a female octopus lays her eggs, this gland makes chemicals that completely change her body. 

These chemicals stop her from wanting to eat, even if she gets hungry. At the same time, her body uses up a lot of energy to take care of the eggs.

As a result, the mother octopus gets weaker and weaker until she eventually dies right around the time her eggs hatch.

Octopuses are semelparous — an animal that reproduces only once per lifetime. Other semelparous animals include salmon, mayflies, some species of squid, and certain cicadas, among others. 

But how come some animals die after giving birth? 

Here are some common explanations why octopuses and other semelparous animals die after giving birth: 

  • Cannibalism Prevention: According to scientists, semelparous animals may be designed to die after giving birth to prevent cannibalism. This self-sacrifice stops mothers from potentially eating their own offspring after laying eggs during times of extreme hunger.
  • Ecosystem Balance: Another potential reason is to make room for their young. The death of mature animals, such as in the case of octopus mothers, ensures they don’t compete with the new generation for resources. This gives their offspring a better chance at survival.
  • All-In for Offspring: Semelparity allows organisms to expend their entire energy store into a single, massive burst of reproduction. In harsh environments, producing enormous numbers of offspring (as in the case of the octopus laying thousands of eggs) helps improve the survival odds of their young and the continuation of their species.
  • Harsh Life: For some semelparous animals like salmon, the exhaustive journey to their breeding grounds leaves them with little to no energy to survive afterward. This life strategy is by design. This also ensures they give everything to the next generation before dying.

The answer to why octopuses are bound to die after giving birth lies in their natural design. One could simply say that they have evolved to adapt that way of reproduction to optimize the survival of their species.

But what about male octopuses? Why do they die after giving birth? 

Male octopuses also face a downturn after reproducing, but it’s not because they lay eggs like females do. Instead, they go through something called senescence.

This means they start to act differently, like not wanting to eat much, moving in strange ways, and slowly getting weaker.

While female octopuses often die around when their eggs hatch, males usually live a few weeks or months after mating before they die, too.

Is It Possible to Save an Octopus After Giving Birth?

Octopus mother building a nest to give birth

Most octopuses can’t be saved after giving birth because it’s a part of their natural life cycle. This is just how they are made, and it happens to almost all octopus species.

Science strongly suggests that the hormonal changes triggered by the optic gland are difficult, if not impossible, to fully reverse by external means. 

However, in 1977, scientist Jerome Wodinsky discovered something surprising about female Caribbean Two-spot Octopuses.

He observed that the octopuses stopped caring for their eggs when the optic gland was removed and began eating again. Some even mated again with other octopuses.

However, this observation is not conclusive proof that removing the gland will completely save an octopus after it lays eggs. More research is needed to fully understand the possibility of saving an octopus after giving birth. 

Do All Octopuses Die After Giving Birth?

Octopuses typically reproduce once and then die shortly after. This one-time breeding pattern is known as “semelparity.” However, it seems some octopuses might be exceptions to this rule.

Researchers believe that certain larger species of octopus can reproduce more than once, which is referred to as being “iteroparous.”

For example, studies from 1984 and a more recent one in 2021 have highlighted the Lesser Pacific Octopus (Octopus chierchiae) as a species capable of multiple reproductive events.

Additionally, some deep-sea octopuses, such as those in the Graneledone family, have been observed caring for eggs at various stages of development. 

While evidence is not conclusive, this observation hints they might lay eggs more than once throughout their lives.

This is possibly due to the harsh conditions of the deep sea, which create selection pressure. This allows for some species to adapt to longer lifespans and potential multiple reproductive opportunities.

However, tracking the complete lifespan of octopuses in their natural, wild habitats poses a significant challenge. 

We may rarely, if ever, be able to document enough reproductive cycles to know for sure which species of octopuses do not follow the semelparous pattern.

How Long Does It Take for Octopus Eggs to Hatch?

Coconut octopus uses shell to protect her eggs

The time it takes for octopus eggs to hatch can vary widely depending on the kind of octopus and the environmental conditions, such as water temperature. 

For instance, eggs of the Common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris) typically hatch after about 30 to 45 days in warmer waters. 

On the other hand, the eggs of the Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), which lives in colder waters, might take from 150 days up to 7 months to hatch.

These differences are largely due to the octopus species’ natural habitat and the surrounding water temperature, with colder temperatures generally leading to longer incubation periods. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Juvenile octopus walking on the seafloor

How Long Do Octopuses Live If They Don’t Mate?

Depending on the species, octopuses typically have relatively short lives — around one to two years on average. Some larger species can live up to three to five years.

Do Octopuses Die After Giving Birth in Captivity?

Yes, even in captivity, octopuses still die after giving birth. There is no known way to stop a semelparous octopus from dying after giving birth. It is a natural part of their life cycle.

How Many Babies Do Octopuses Survive?

Despite laying thousands of eggs, very few octopus babies reach adulthood due to environmental hazards and predators. 

Out of a consortium of baby octopuses, it is estimated that only 1% reach maturity. However, this may vary depending on many factors.

So, did you learn something new about octopuses? Leave a comment below and share with us your thoughts about the unique reproduction process of octopuses.

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