Rich Ross Has a Thing for Octopuses
A Cal Academy senior scientist studies the larger Pacific striped octopuses, sometimes in his at-home Alameda Lab.
Rich Ross was inspired by the octopuses of his youth that he saw in horror films.
Photo by Chris Duffey
It’s pretty obvious that Rich Ross is obsessed with octopuses. Tattoos of three separate octopuses are inked onto his upper arm, and their tentacles reach out from beneath his short-sleeved shirt and coil delicately around his right elbow, as Ross explained that octopuses are the closest things to alien life on the planet.
“They have different blood from us, three hearts, and a ring-shaped brain,” said Ross, who studies octopuses as a senior scientist at the California Academy of Sciences. “They can change color and texture like nobody’s business. They re-grow limbs, and their eyesight is fantastic. There is something so captivating about an animal that can change shape and has so many arms.”
Ross fell in love with octopuses as a kid. “I was fascinated by their cultural significance and the legends about them,” he said.
But few people know that Ross has been breeding the rare larger Pacific striped octopus in the spare bedroom of his ocean-blue house on Alameda’s East Side. “It’s my secret home lab,” joked Ross, as a pair of Dr. Seuss fish, an arrow crab, a goldflake angelfish, a cleaner shrimp, a designer Clown fish, and some Bangkok cardinals weaved through a massive aquarium system that filled the room with an eerie blue glow. Nothing but the stalked eyes of a zebra mantis shrimp was visible in one tank, until Ross dangled a tiny fish into the aquarium. Suddenly the shrimp exploded from the sand, grabbed the fish in its claws, and dived back into its hidey-hole.
But sadly there are no larger Pacific striped octopuses lurking in Ross’ lab at the moment. “The beautiful tragedy of these animals is they are so short-lived,” Ross said. He hopes to get an expedition funded to learn more about these baseball-sized octopuses, which up until recently, were viewed as the stuff of myth, the eight-armed equivalents of the legendary Bigfoot. Their behavior flies in the face of most cephalopods.
The intrigue began in the 1970s, when a Panamanian biologist named Arcadio Rodaniche diving off the coast of Nicaragua discovered some striped octopuses behaving unusually. Unlike most female octopuses, which devour their mates after breeding, the female larger Pacific striped octopuses weren’t cannibalistic. Instead, Rodaniche observed them mating beak-to-beak, cohabitating in pairs, sharing dens, living in colonies, and laying eggs repeatedly and in small batches. But when Rodaniche reported their behavior in 1992, scientists met his paper with disbelief.
Two decades later, Ross and UC Berkeley biologist Roy Caldwell were studying a much smaller octopus, confusingly known as the lesser Pacific striped octopus, when they got word that a collector had caught something “different.” “Almost immediately, we knew it was the larger Pacific striped octopus,” Ross said. “It was like catching Bigfoot and finding, yes, it does lope across the room.”
Ross and Caldwell rushed to secure the collector’s entire larger Pacific striped octopus catch, housing some in Ross’ home lab, and some at UC Berkeley, and the pair spent the next year and half verifying Rodaniche’s reports. “We didn’t want to run into academic intrigue,” Ross explained. “If they are spread out, it becomes harder to study them and more competitive.”
At first, the researchers didn’t know if they could keep the males and females safely together. “But once we knew we could, we made arrangements to display them,” Ross recalled. This involved sealing octopuses in bags and driving them to the Academy of Sciences in water-filled buckets. “The flashier the octopus, the more cautious I am about handling it,” Ross said. Most octopuses have poisonous bites, and the coloration in the larger Pacific striped octopus is too “exciting” for Ross not to be worried.
The octopuses lived for about two years and laid eggs, but their offspring did not survive. “The biggest roadblocks with a marine mammal like the larger Pacific striped octopus, which has a larval stage, is figuring out what it eats and keeping up with its food chain,” Ross said.
Ross, Caldwell, and fellow octopus researcher Christine Huffard, also managed to track down Rodaniche, and the quartet co-authored a paper about large Pacific striped octupus behavior and body patterns, which was published in the August 2015 issue of PLoS One, a peer-reviewed, open-access resource from the Public Library of Science.
“Luckily, Rodaniche was still alive,” Ross said. “We were worried that he was going to go before the paper was published.
Mostly self-taught from raising cuttlefish and coral at home, Ross said he is overjoyed to be working at the Academy of Sciences and going on expeditions each year. “I’m freaking Jacques Cousteau,” he laughed.
But he said he worries that larger Pacific striped octopuses, which prefer colder temperatures, could be harder for collectors to source, as El Niño warms up the Pacific. Meanwhile, he mulled over a list of as yet unanswered questions. “We know the females aren’t cannibalistic, but do they have multiple mates? We never had enough males to find out,” said Ross, who hopes to breed these creatures to adulthood. “When we figure out how to do that, it’ll be a good day.”