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Volume 38 Issue 13 • July 24 - 30, 2008
now in our 37th season

What Would You Name Her?

The newest resident of the Maria Mitchell Aquarium has a beak, eight legs, and can change color at will.  She’s a native Common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris), and she needs a name.

This interesting creature came to the surface quite by accident: she was caught in a test dredge by Town Shellfish Biologist Jeff Mercer one day last October when he was checking scallop populations in Madaket Harbor.  Though Mercer knew there were octopuses in Nantucket waters, he was surprised: “You just don’t really see too many of them.”

Mercer took the octopus back to the lab in the Brant Point Boathouse, where she spent the winter.  “We have lots of animals, but no other pets,” explained Mercer.  “She definitely has the most personality...She’d hide in a conch shell all day, and when I came up, she’d come to the surface and expect a treat...She definitely recognizes people who feed her.”

After being introduced, Dr. Bob Kennedy of the Maria Mitchell Association (MMA) suggested that Mercer permit the octopus to spend the summer at the MMA Aquarium on Washington Street.  Mercer agreed.

According to Rachel Rasfeld of the MMA, Octopus vulgaris is more common that people think, but is elusive and seldom captured:  “because they have no intention of harming humans, they would rather just hide...and being invertebrates (having no bones), they can wedge themselves into very small places.”  The octopus at the Aquarium is an adult female, and, as are most of her species, she’s very intelligent.  “She can unscrew a glass jar and get at the food inside.”  Her favorite spot to relax is an empty whelk shell, and her diverse diet consists mostly of soft-shell clams, quahogs, and fish.

The octopus is also adept at color change.  “I saw her one day when she was sitting in a corner all white,” explained Rasfeld, “the staff dropped in a soft shell clam, and she instantly turned a bright red. So maybe red is her ‘happy color’.”

The octopus was an ideal choice for this season’s Naming Contest.  Previous subjects have included seahorses (Del Mar), a blue lobster (Clawdette), a trigger fish (Pistol Pete), and a 17-pound lobster (King Neptune). To enter your idea in the annual Naming Contest, stop by the Aquarium at 28 Washington Street, meet the octopus, and fill out the entry form. The winner will be announced at the end of the summer and awarded a prize.

The Maria Mitchell Aquarium, named Editor's Choice for Best Kid's Activity by Cape Cod Life, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for children; MMA members are admitted free.

In addition to the marine life that can be seen (and some can be touched) at the MMA Aquarium, the organization has even more interesting creatures at their Natural Science Museum at Hinchman House.  There museum staff members have recently welcomed a brood of baby Black Widow spiders. These fascinating arachnids hail from nearby Tuckernuck Island and are being studied by MMA scientists for their unique appearance and behavior. Stop by and see if you can count how many there are. The Natural Science Museum at Hinchman House is open Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for children; MMA members are admitted free of charge.

Founded in 1902, the Maria Mitchell Association is dedicated to furthering science education, encouraging women in science, and serving as a science resource for Nantucket. The mission of the science and history-based education, preservation and research institution is to explore, educate about and enjoy Nantucket's land, waters and the skies beyond.  In fulfilling its mission, the MMA uses the unique natural environment of Nantucket as a resource to encourage inquiring minds and builds upon the scientific achievements of Maria Mitchell, a native of Nantucket who was America’s first woman astronomer and first female astronomy professor.

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