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Mimic Octopuses: Will we love them to death?

<< Cephalopod Articles | By Dr. Roy Caldwell and Christopher D Shaw - Dr. James B. Wood, Editor

This article was inspired by two posts on Ceph Group, a list-server dedicated to cephalopods and open to all. Dr. Roy Caldwell wrote the original post and Chris Shaw replied with first hand knowlege. Dr. Caldwell is one of a very few people that have worked with these amazing octopuses in the
Wonderpus, also underscribed and a relative of the mimic octopus
wild and Chris is the only aquarist I know of that has had any luck keeping a mimic octopus alive in captivity. Both urge aquarists to keep other species instead on this delicate animal. I personally had a wonderpus in my care for all of 4 days. It never ate and died. While I'm not against octopuses being kept as pets, I believe that this amazing and still undescribed species should not be kept. - James B. Wood

There is no question that the mimic octopus and its relatives such as wunderpus are remarkable animals. Whether they are capable of the repertoire of behaviors attributed to them remains to be seen. Even if their mimetic abilities are limited, we must marvel at the images of these animals that have been captured on film and video and are displayed around the world. However, as the animals become better known, they are also becoming more desirable for public aquarists, scientists and hobbyists alike. The pressures to acquire and attempt to keep and display them are rapidly increasing. It is not uncommon to see requests for such animals and often the amount of money offered for them is staggering - $100 and up. At this point, I think we should all take a deep breath and think seriously about the biology of this species, what such bounties are likely to mean for its survival, and what motivates us to want a mimic for our very own.

I want to make it clear from the onset that I am not against the importation of marine life where its collection did not threaten existing stocks. I certainly support efforts to culture a variety of organisms for public, commercial and private display. Over the years I have strongly supported the aquarium industry because I firmly believe that public awareness of, and interest in, marine diversity offers one of our best routes to marine conservation. However, I feel strongly that because of its notoriety and scarcity, mimics present a special case that deserves our immediate attention.

If there is one thing that we know about mimics, it is that they are rare. Since they were first recognized, very few have been collected or observed in the wild. Even in areas such as the Lembeh Straits and Bali, which have been extensively dived by knowledgeable naturalists, sightings have been infrequent and sporadic. Only dozens have been seen, not hundreds or thousands. Yes, it is a big ocean. However, the habitats apparently suitable for the mimic are limited, easily accessible and the number of people (including collectors) diving on them is rapidly increasing.

In a few areas, individual mimics are occasionally identified by underwater guides who take divers to see them. Much of what we know of these animals comes from such sightings. With the bounties being offered for these animals, it is increasingly likely that some collectors who know the whereabouts of mimics will be unable to resist the temptation and these animals will end up in the collection bucket. You do not want to know the fate of most cephalopods collected in Indonesia for export. By offering importers high prices for mimics, I am deeply concerned that we are creating a market that rapidly will exhaust the supply.

I would urge everyone, amateurs and professionals alike, to curtail your desire to display these animals. I hope that with our help they can continue to survive in the wild where they can be studied, photographed and appreciated. These animals have enough problems without our hastening their doom. The coastal habitats in which they occur are some of the most heavily impacted in Indonesia. Coastal run off and mining are eliminating them at an alarming rate. To my mind, risking several of these rare beasts so that one might live for a few months (with no hope of successfully reproducing) in an aquarium just is not worth the price.

It would be great if we could acquired a sufficient number of specimens to keep them in aquaria around the world, learn their habits and how to culture them, etc. I would strongly support this for a species like O. cyanea that is widely distributed. However, there does not appear to be the population base needed to support intense collection of mimics. With modern communications, mimics are popping up everywhere in print, on television and on the web. People around the world know about mimics and want one. The market isn't just in the US, Germany, and Japan, but extends around the world. How many public aquaria would like to exhibit one? How many scientists, myself included, would dearly love to have a few to study? How many amateur cephalopod enthusiasts would shell out big bucks to have one? And how many hobbyists walking into their local LFS would put down their money just because the mimic looks so cool? By promoting this exceptional animal I'm afraid that we have created a demand that may do it in.

Sure, a few specimens were needed to document the species and the occasional animal will make its way into the market place. Stuff happens and I cannot fault anyone for taking advantage of it. All I'm asking is that we do everything in our power not to encourage or support the deliberate collection of mimics. I honestly fear that if we cannot stem their collection, there will be no mimics to wonder at in a very few years.

Chris's comments

Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
Mimic Octopus
I was lucky to acquire one through my supplier, who had one in his shop. He contacted me knowing I had the most experience of the people he dealt with and could give it the best home. I took the offer and had the mimic shipped to me. The supplier had no idea what he had. All he knew is he had another fancy zebra octopus.

I had been offered twice before a chance to buy a zebra octopus. The first two times it turned out to be wonderpus (see the image at the top of this article). The first one found a home at the NRCC when I had no room for it and died in their tanks a few days later. For those who don't know what the NRCC stands for they are the National Resource Center for Cephalopods. If any one has a chance of keeping a octopus alive these people are some of the best. But even in their expert hands it died in a few days.

A second specimen was offered to me at a time I was in Costa Rica and had no way to know it was being offered to me till I got home from the trip and read my email. When I called my supplier I found it died two days after having it in his tank.

Now both of these octopuses cost more than twice what a bullet proof biamc would cost. Why did they die so quick? Collection methods maybe, the use of cyanide, stress, delicate octopus.... Who knows? But what I do know is after thinking about it, these animals cost a lot, die easily even at the hands of the pros and are rare even to see in the wild. For the money... you would be better off with a O. bimaculoides that has 10 times more things going for it than a zebra octopus at about 1/3 the cost.

When I got the mimic it arrived weak, a few legs half missing and on the verge of death. I was lucky enough to nurse it back to health and save it. Why was I able to? Maybe this one was not collected with cyanide. It seems that species that are sand dwelling octopuses are chased out of their holes 99% of the time with cyanide in order to collect them for the trade.

Maybe this animal is better of being left alone untill we know more about it. From what I know they do not do well in captivity. I can only imagine how many must have died before this one managed to live. After having this animal for 5 months I will now tell you the pros and cons of owning one.


1) They are way cool looking!


1) They require a very deep fine sand bed of 8 to 10 inches to feel safe. They will not live under rocks, in tubing or any other home. This is a must!!!!!! And they can live under the sand for days which means you don't see it for days.

2) They demand exceptional water quality. Above that which most common octopuses require.

3) They require a heated tank kept at a steady controlled temp.

4) They hide a lot and seem to prefer a very dimly lit tank.

5) They are active late at night and very early morning when light is the weakest. Not a great display animal.... And folks, you will not see any mimicry!!!

6) They don't interact very much at all and have a dull personality. They are not very exciting folks. They also cost way more than a bimac that has 10 times the personality!!!

7) They should have a large long tank because when they do come out they like to swim and seem to ink out of frustration if they keep hitting glass which then requires a water change for this species. Even with a kick butt skimmer and carbon they seem to sleep a lot if you don't... My observations.

8) They are very sensitive to some brands of salt. I almost killed mine by switching to a very common brand and would not have figured it out if I didn't keep a log.

9) They have no real color or texture change ability, so all the time you have a dull brown and white octo unless it gets mad then its black.

10) No one to date has done a toxin test on them and for all we know they could be poisonous!

If you want a cool fun octo that will blow your socks off... get a bimac.

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