Octopus Research at Birch Aquarium

Kelley Voss, graduate student at the Behavior and Benthic Ecology Lab at Alaska Pacific University, spent last week at Birch Aquarium at Scripps studying our Giant Pacific Octopus. Aquarists, educators, and visitors were all excited to learn more about Kelley’s unusual and exciting research. Kelley graciously took some time out her busy schedule to answer some questions about her research. Find out what it takes to study octopus below.

Graduate Student Kelly Voss explains her experiment to young aquarium visitors. She is standing in front of a sheet covering the Giant Pacific Octopus tank, and is using a camera hooked up to a tablet to monitor and record the octopus' behavior.

Graduate student Kelley Voss explains her experiment to young aquarium visitors. She is standing in front of a sheet covering the Giant Pacific Octopus tank, and is using a camera hooked up to a tablet to monitor and record the octopus’ behavior.

Where did you go to school?

I got my Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology at California State University, Long Beach. (Go Forty Niners!)

What is your area of research?

My Master’s thesis investigates how the personalities of Giant Pacific Octopuses (Enteroctopus dofleini) change in the presence of a conspecific. This means that I want to know if Giant Pacific Octopuses act differently if they think there’s another octopus of the same species close by.

A young Giant Pacific Octopus. Full-grown Giant Pacific Octopus can weigh more than 50 pounds. The record was an individual weighing 600 pounds and measuring nearly 30 feet across!

A young Giant Pacific Octopus. Full-grown Giant Pacific Octopus can weigh more than 50 pounds. The record was an individual weighing 600 pounds and measuring nearly 30 feet across!

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

I grew up going to a marine park near my home in Northern California, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a marine biologist for a living until I was in college. I have had so many incredible professors in my school life, but Steve James at Sacramento City College inspired me to take my passion for marine biology and turn it into a career.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

The number one quality every scientist needs is perseverance. All good science takes time. If you can be patient and persistent when things aren’t going the right way the first (and second and third) time, you will eventually find a solution. This doesn’t just apply to doing science experiments–if you want to do well in school, or you really want an internship, it is important to keep trying until you find your way.

Why is your research topic important?

It is important to know whether or not we have been missing a part of octopus behavior this whole time because many marine biologists didn’t think it was possible. We have always thought that octopuses are not social: they don’t live in structured groups, they don’t seem to have a language to communicate ideas to one another, and most importantly, they’re known to eat each other. However, I have seen more and more cases of octopuses living safely together, not just for mating. Since they are so intelligent, I want to know why they choose to behave the ways they do in different situations involving other octopuses. 

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

VOLUNTEER, VOLUNTEER, VOLUNTEER. I worked for over 250 hours as an undergraduate student volunteer in the CSULB Shark Lab. I took many shifts that nobody else wanted, spending many days and nights in a kayak or a boat working on tracking California Halibut, Grey Smoothhound Sharks, or White Croaker. The experience I gained helped me get internships, jobs, and now, my graduate student position, as well as a side project tracking octopuses. Dedication and persistence will take you very, very far in marine science, and volunteering in different areas of research will help you figure out what you really want to do.

Octopus research is important to learn more about these intelligent creatures.

Octopus research is important to learn more about these intelligent creatures.

What is your favorite ocean organism?

Take a wild guess! I am SO lucky to work with my very favorite animal. Aside from octopuses, I really like all other cephalopod species, as well as Sea Hares, California Halibut, and Leopard Sharks.

Come meet Birch Aquarium’s Giant Pacific Octopus on display in the Hall of Fishes!

 

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego