Octopus Mothers Mutilate and Cannibalize Themselves — And We Now Know Why

  • A loving mother will protect her babies from their greatest enemy — herself.

Does your mother dearest have a habit of reminding you how difficult parenthood is? Tell her what it’s like for an octopus mother and she just might stop.

We’ve written quite a lot about strange and unusual reproductive habits animals engage in. But even in this crowd, the octopus takes things to a whole another level of hardcore.

After getting her eight-armed (yes, they’re arms, not tentacles) freak on, the soon-to-be octopus mother goes to lay her eggs in a safe and secluded crack on the seafloor. She then goes completely bats*** insane.

Scientists have observed female octopuses engage in truly horrendous self-destructive behavior. They’ll purposefully starve themselves, bash their bodies against rocks, tear loose sheets of their skin, and rip off entire limbs.

Oh, and there’s an exception to that starvation part. The female octopuses occasionally stuff freshly torn chunks of themselves into their beaks to devour them.

The actual parenting part is actually pretty easy for the octopus. There is no parenting — by the time her eggs hatch, the mother octopus will have tortured herself to death long ago.

“Right, that’s my eggs laid down. Time to tear my face off.”

Hopped Up on Hormones

For the longest time, nobody but the octopuses themselves knew what drives them into this gruesome frenzy. But now, fresh research — published in the journal Current Biology — has figured out the cause behind the prolonged suicide.

As every mother knows, pregnancy will do both wonderful and weird things to a woman’s hormone balance. Z. Yan Wang, an assistant professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington, has discovered that human mothers have it easy with the hormonal changes.

After a female octopus lays her eggs, she experiences a boost in steroid hormones. This increase is what drives the octopus to tear itself into fleshy chunks.

Scientists have been aware since 1977 that the octopuses’ suicide drive is linked to their optic glands. These glands, located in an octopus’ eyes, are the equivalent of a human pituitary gland — a tiny chunk in your brain that produces hormones.

If the optic gland is severed, the mother octopus will not kill herself. Instead, she’ll abandon her eggs, swim away, and start hunting and eating again.

In her research, Wang found out that the egg-laying causes the optic gland to go haywire and start pumping out certain hormones and bile acid like it’s about to die. Which it soon will.

Interestingly enough, one of the hormones, 7-DHC, is also present in humans. Our bodies, however, get rid of it quickly because it’s actually toxic.

Occasionally, a human baby is born with a condition that causes 7-DHC to build up. In those cases, the hormone can cause physical deformities, intellectual disability, and behavioral issues — such as self-harm.

Apparently, it causes at least the latter effect in octopuses as well.

Loving Her Babies, the Only Way She Knows How

So, we now know the biological reasons for octopus mothers’ depraved drive towards self-destruction. But why did this bizarre phenomenon evolve? What purpose does it serve?

That’s a question we (at the moment, at least) don’t have an answer for. The purpose of parental suicide in octopuses is still unknown to science.

One theory suggests that the morbid death ritual is just motherly love taken to its logical extreme. Many predators are after the octopus’ yummy eggs, so by crippling herself, the mother offers potential predators a more attractive meal.

Another theory proposes that the mother’s suicide is a way for her to feed her babies. Once she’s dead and decaying, her corpse will release nutrients into the water that sustains her developing eggs.

Wang, however, doesn’t believe in either of these ideas. In her opinion, the mother is protecting the babies from other octopuses — and herself.

You see, octopuses are habitual cannibals — they have no qualms whatsoever about eating their own kind. So, what do you think would happen if the starving mother saw her hatching, vulnerable brood?

That’s right, she’d probably eat them. In her hormone-addled mind, the solution is to kill herself.

After all, if she’s reduced to a bunch of fleshy chunks floating about, she can’t be tempted to eat her babies, can she?

There’s nothing quite like a mother’s love.