Why do female octopuses die after reproducing?

Mother octopuses never meet their babies, as they stop eating and die of starvation before the young hatch. However, that’s probably a good thing.

California two-spot octopus. © Phil Garner/Alamy

While parents sacrifice much for their offspring, few routinely give up their lives. But such is the destiny of a female octopus: tending her eggs is the last thing she’ll do.

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In a gloriously tragic act of self-sacrifice, she stops eating and dies of starvation before the young hatch. She might even hasten her demise by actively ripping off parts of her own body.

These behaviours seem to be orchestrated by nervous impulses from something known as the ‘optic gland’. Removal of this gland increases an octopus’s lifespan considerably, so it’s clearly not a simple case of exhaustion.

Instead, death seems to be pre- programmed. Octopuses have a cannibalistic streak, so death may be a way to prevent a female from feeding on her own hatchlings.


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Main image: California two-spot octopus. © Phil Garner/Alamy