May 15, 2020

Octomom

In 2007, Bruce Robison’s robot submarine stumbled across an octopus settling in to brood her eggs. It seemed like a small moment. But as he went back to visit her, month after month, what began as a simple act of motherhood became a heroic feat that has never been equaled by any known species on Earth. 

This episode was reported and produced by Annie McEwen. 

Special thanks to Kim Fulton-Bennett and Rob Sherlock at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. And thanks to the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra for the use of their piece, “Concerto for Bassoon & Chamber Orchestra: II. Beautiful.” 

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate 

If you need more ocean in your life, check out the incredible Monterey Bay Aquarium live cams (especially the jellies!): www.montereybayaquarium.org/animals/live-cams

 Here’s a pic of Octomom sitting on her eggs, Nov. 1, 2007.  

 

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OCTOMOM FINAL WEB TRANSCRIPT

 

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. And Annie McEwen ...

 

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yes.

 

JAD: Well, what’ve you got for me?

 

ANNIE: Well, first of all, Robert, let me just get the levels on you.

 

ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay, I’m here.

 

ANNIE: We’ve got Robert.

 

JAD: Robert!

 

ANNIE: Maybe you can tell ...

 

ROBERT: I’m sitting in on this one with Annie just because ...

 

ANNIE: As many of you know, he retired from Radiolab not too long ago. But I brought him out of retirement and back into the studio to sit in with me on this interview.

 

ROBERT: ...We just sometimes just pile on, when it looks like it’s gonna be a candy, fun thing to do.

 

ANNIE: And second of all, I have a hero. And a story that -- I don’t know, I just feel like it’s exactly the kind of story that we all need right now at this moment.

 

JAD: Okay. Let’s go.

 

ANNIE: Okay, so let’s start with our main character.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: [clears throat] Excuse me.

 

JAD: This is our hero?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Oh no, no, no, no.

 

ANNIE: No -- well. Our main storyteller, I guess.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: My name is Bruce Robison. Reaching out to you from KAZU in Monterey, California. California State University, Monterey Bay.

 

ANNIE: Whoa, thank you!

 

ROBERT: You got it all in there!

 

ANNIE: I know, that was very well done.

 

ANNIE: So Bruce is a deep sea explorer.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: I’m a Southern California beach kid who just kept going out deeper and deeper.

 

ROBERT: [laughs]

 

ANNIE: These days he works at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. And basically he and his team, they’ll go out on a boat with a little remote sub that they drop into the water with a camera and see what they can see.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: It’s really exciting, because there’s all of these cool animals.

 

ROBERT: Well, I’m just curious, like, did you just go out onto the ocean and then look down? Went, "Oh!" Or did -- how does it begin, this story?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Well, one day ...

 

ANNIE: This is back in April of 2007.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: We’re on a ship called Western Flyer.

 

ANNIE: They’re on one of their runs checking out sea life, and they’re just off the coast over this giant, underwater canyon, the Monterey Canyon.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Pretty much the -- the same scale and scope as the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

 

JAD: There's an underwater Grand Canyon in Monterey Bay?

 

ANNIE: That’s right.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

ANNIE: And on this day, Bruce and his team drop their little robot sub down into the water.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: A little less than a mile down.

 

ANNIE: Which doesn’t seem like a lot, but imagine going down the length of the Empire State Building. And then go down another Empire State Building.

 

JAD: Oh my God.

 

ANNIE: And then go down another Empire State Building. And then go down, like, maybe a few more floors. Like, maybe ten more floors of that Empire State Building.

 

JAD: That’s just -- that makes me a little bit dizzy.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: The darkness is overwhelming. You can look up and say, "Maybe the surface is up that way." But the last little photons have given up. And yet, it is punctuated by sparkles and twinkles and flashes all around. The majority of animals that live there make their own light, and you can hear scritches and squeaks and thumps around you.

 

ANNIE: Right. Oh Bruce, I’m noticing that you’re chair is rather vocal.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Ah.

 

ANNIE: It seems like it's squeaking. Unless that’s Robert. Is that you Robert?

 

ROBERT: That’s my imitation of a ship at sea. That’s ...

 

ANNIE: [laughs] It’s not quite working for me. It sounds a lot like a chair.

 

ROBERT: No, no. It’s his fault. It’s not mine. You’re rocking.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Well I’ll try not -- I’ll ...

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

ANNIE: Anyway, they’re down there in the darkness and they flick on this little headlight. And sweeping this cone of light around in front of them, they see the silty seafloor, a few rocky outcrops. When into that cone of light, wanders ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: An octopus moving towards the rock across the sea floor.

 

ANNIE: Our hero. Using her arms to sort of pull and glide and roll herself along.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: She was kind of purpley-gray, dark, mottled. There was a crescent-shaped scar on one arm and a circular scar elsewhere.

 

ANNIE: Cool. Like tattoos.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Yeah.

 

ROBERT: Well just so we get a sense of size, can you fit her on your lap? Or could you wear her as a hat?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Okay. The mantle, the roundy part, was as big as a healthy cantaloupe.

 

ANNIE: Oh.

 

ROBERT: Oh. How long are the tentacles?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Foot-and-a-half long. They’re very stretchy.

 

ROBERT: Ooh. Okay.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Anyway, about a month later we went back and dropped down.

 

ROBERT: A month later? You see an animal heading towards a rock and you don’t wait to see if she gets there because it would -- that'd take too long or why ...?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: We weren’t really focused on that. That -- it was just an observation.

 

ROBERT: Oh, Okay.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Anyway ...

 

ANNIE: When they went back in the robot sub a month later ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: That same octopus was up on a vertical face on the rock, sitting on a clutch of eggs.

 

ANNIE: Her body covering the eggs. Each of her arms ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Curled in a little spiral, tucked into position.

 

ROBERT: How many babies was she sitting on?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: 160.

 

ROBERT: Are they jellybean-sized, or ...?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Yeah, that’s a good approximation.

 

ANNIE: And Bruce and his team were like ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Oh!

 

ANNIE: This is great!

 

BRUCE ROBISON: We know within about a month when the eggs were laid.

 

ANNIE: And they’d often wondered, like, how long does it take for octopus eggs to hatch?

 

ROBERT: Does science not know about the brooding period of octopuses?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Not deep-water ones.

 

ROBERT: Oh.

 

ANNIE: Which was a totally different species of octopus, and could have totally a different way of doing things for all they knew.

BRUCE ROBISON: We know so little about life in the deep sea that something like this can be very illuminating.

 

ROBERT: Did you have a name for her other than, like, 1006-B?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: We just called her Octomom.

 

ROBERT: Octomom. [laughs]

 

ANNIE: Oh, beautiful.

 

ANNIE: So whenever they were out at sea and had time in their schedule, they’d toss in the robot sub, drop down ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: And have a look ...

 

ANNIE: ... at Octomom. They dropped down in May and there she is, a little figure huddled on the rock. A month or so later, there she is again sitting on her eggs and warding off predators.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Crabs and shrimps on the rock who would’ve loved to chow down on her eggs.

 

ROBERT: So let’s say I’m a crab and I see some lady sitting on 160 babies. So I figure my odds are pretty good that I can scarf at least six of them.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Not a chance.

 

ROBERT: Oh.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: She is vigilant and relentless.

 

ROBERT: Couldn’t I bite her?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Nope.

 

ROBERT: Or what about ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Nope.

 

ROBERT: No.

 

ANNIE: Yeah, what happens if a crab bites her?

 

ROBERT: Yeah. Or pinces her?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: She would squeeze the heck out of it.

 

ROBERT: Okay.

 

ANNIE: Couple months after that, they’re zooming in towards the rock and, oh!

 

BRUCE ROBISON: There she is.

 

ANNIE: Cleaning the eggs with an arm. Like la, la, la, la, la.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: And you can see the baby octopus inside the egg after a while.

 

ANNIE: Next visit ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Still there.

 

ANNIE: Couple months after that ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Um ... oh!

 

ANNIE: There she is. Same old spot.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Ah.

 

ANNIE: October, Still there?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: You bet.

 

ANNIE: November?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Yes!

 

ANNIE: Curled around her babies, cleaning them, protecting them.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Mm-hmm.

 

ANNIE: And it’s been now been around, like, six months, something like that? And Bruce and his team start to notice that she was changing.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: She became very pale. She clearly lost weight. And you could see over time that her eyes began to get cloudy. I say the human counterpart might be cataracts.

 

ANNIE: And according to Bruce, for an octopus this is normal.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Most octopuses that we know about do not feed while they’re brooding.

 

ROBERT: At all?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: At all.

 

JAD: Oh, she’s -- she’s stuck to the rock with her jellybeans ...

 

ANNIE: She’s there.

 

JAD: ... that entire time?

 

ANNIE: Yeah. She hasn’t moved.

 

ROBERT: So that would mean that she was starving.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Yes.

 

ANNIE: And not just starving, but starving to death.

 

YAN WANG: Octopus moms die after they reproduce.

ANNIE: Who is this?

 

YAN WANG: Oh! This is Yan.

 

ANNIE: I know. I’m just kidding. [laughs]

 

YAN WANG: [laughs] I was like, I’ll talk to whatever voice is coming through the headphones but ...

 

ANNIE: So, Yan Wang ...

 

YAN WANG: I'm an evolutionary neuroscientist.

 

ANNIE: She’s a postdoc at Princeton, but she did her PhD research on reproduction and death in the octopus. Now, she studied a shallow-water species of octopus, which tend to have a very short life.

 

YAN WANG: It typically only lives for a year.

 

JAD: Really?

 

ANNIE: Yeah.

 

JAD: That’s it for an octopus?

 

ANNIE: I know. Isn’t that crazy?

 

JAD: That seems -- I mean there’s all the attention they get as being these brainy creatures.

 

ANNIE: I know.

 

JAD: And to think they’re so ephemeral.

 

ANNIE: Now, the deep-sea species like Octomom probably live a little longer than that. We don’t actually know exactly how long. But Yan told me that all octopuses have a sort of similar life story. Like when your a kid, you’re just growing ...

 

YAN WANG: So you’re just eating everything.

 

ANNIE: ... then you hit puberty. You gotta find a mate that won’t eat you. Apparently that’s a big risk. And when you do finally find that mate ...

 

YAN WANG: The male octopus reaches with one of its arms into the mantle ...

 

ANNIE: The big balloon-y part of his body.

 

YAN WANG: Reaches in there and removes a sperm packet.

 

ANNIE: And he tucks it inside the female’s mantle. "Here you go." And that’s it. That’s their sex. Which sounded a little dry to me.

 

SY MONTGOMERY: Well, I once was describing this on a train, a commuter train, to a friend of mine. And I suddenly noticed the train was completely silent.

 

ROBERT: [laughs]

 

SY MONTGOMERY: So ...

 

ROBERT: [laughs] In a porn-like way or in a horror way?

 

SY MONTGOMERY: [laughs] In a total porn-like way!

 

ANNIE: This is Sy Montgomery. She’s the author of The Soul of an Octopus as well as, like, 29 other books about animals. And one Valentine’s Day at the Seattle Aquarium, she got to see ...

 

SY MONTGOMERY: Mmm ...

 

ANNIE: Octo-sex.

 

SY MONTGOMERY: Let’s see. The male might have been up in the corner.

 

ANNIE: Teeny digression here.

 

SY MONTGOMERY: And the female came out of the one tank and entered this tank and crawled towards him. As soon as he realized "My love has arrived," they both turned bright red and they flew into each other's arms! And they covered each other with their suckers, 16 arms going on. And they’re all very fast. But they stay together for a while afterwards, sometimes hours. I mean, it was very romantic. The male often wrapped around the female. And frequently they both turn white, which is the color of a relaxed octopus. So that’s when they’re having the cigarette.

 

ROBERT: Huh.

 

ANNIE: Anyway, we can’t know if that’s what Octomom experienced. She is a different species after all. But what we do know is that once she used that sperm, that was the beginning of the end of her life.

 

YAN WANG: The female can essentially decide when she wants to fertilize her eggs, because once she lays them, you know, she’s not going to move them.

 

ANNIE: So yeah, she has to go do all of her favorite things one last time before she switches over.

 

YAN WANG: [laughs] Her last hurrah.

 

ANNIE: [laughs] Exactly.

 

YAN WANG: Her rumspringa.

 

ANNIE: Totally.

 

YAN WANG: Yeah.

 

ANNIE: But when she decides the time is right, she’ll find a safe spot and lay her eggs.

 

YAN WANG: Then as the eggs are about to hatch, she dies.

 

ANNIE: Now, the shallow-water species of octopus that Yan studies, this sitting and taking care of your eggs phase doesn't last that long, only about a month. But with Octomom, since they knew virtually nothing about the species, the question was how long would it go? How long would she sit on those eggs, not eating, slowly dying?

ROBERT: How oft -- are you visiting her every month or two? Every three months? Or ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: No, no, no. It was -- there wasn’t a regular pattern. This was sort of bootleg science. We were out there doing other things that we were supposed to do as part of our project up in the water column. And if we had a little extra dive time we’d sneak down and check her out.

 

ANNIE: Which they did month after month after month after month.

 

JAD: If you keep counting, how far does it go?

 

ANNIE: Well, like let’s say, let’s say, year one.

 

JAD: Year?

 

ANNIE: Yeah.

 

JAD: Oh, wow!

 

ANNIE: Year one, they drop down. She’s looking pretty rough. And there are all these crabs crawling around. And they’re scientists but they're also kind of having a hard time watching this octopus suffer, for lack of a better word.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: And one of the things that we tried, was we went down once and broke a couple legs off a crab.

 

ANNIE: With the robot? With the robot?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Yeah. We have manipulator arms. We can do all kinds of neat stuff.

 

ANNIE: [laughs]

 

BRUCE ROBISON: So we broke off a couple of crab legs and offered them to her. She -- she wouldn’t have anything to do with it. We tried that oh, two, three times.

 

JAD: Whoa.

 

ANNIE: And one time in year two ...

 

JAD: Year two?

 

ANNIE: They drop down and they see she is being circled by crabs.

 

JAD: What?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Looking as though they were trying to mass an attack, if you will.

 

ANNIE: Like, how many?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Three or four.

 

ANNIE: She, like, very weak at this point. And these crabs are, like, circling her, like you imagine with pitchforks, like around a witch at a stake or something.

 

JAD: Oh, back! Back you devils!

 

ANNIE: [laughs] And Bruce and his team are like, "Oh my God! Like, what’s going to happen?" You know, "Could this be the end?"

 

BRUCE ROBISON: And all right, so we -- we couldn’t hang around and ...

 

ROBERT: Oh man! You are not the kind of people -- we would not hire you! If we -- if we were following somebody who was under attack by a group of crabs who had written -- drawn a circle of death around her and said, "No one shall pass!" We would not go back upstairs. We would stay.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: [laughs] We had other things on our agenda.

 

JAD: Oh, come on! They just -- they ...

 

ANNIE: I know!

 

JAD: They grabbed the crab last time.

 

ANNIE: I know -- I know!

 

JAD: Just, like, shoo them away with the arms.

 

ANNIE: That’s what -- I know. But they would come right back. I mean, they can’t guard her.

 

JAD: But they leave her there in the dark being circled by crabs? Oh!

 

BRUCE ROBISON: That was at the beginning of a week-long trip.

 

ANNIE: So they’re out at sea, doing their research. And all the while they’re thinking, "What happened to Octomom and the crabs?"

 

BRUCE ROBISON: So on our way back home we thought, "Let’s go check. Let’s see how things are."

 

ANNIE: They drop in the sub. They drop down. They drop down, down, down, down, down, down. Biting their nails ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: As we try to find our way into the rock. And we’re searching, searching, searching.

 

ANNIE: And then, there! A white blob in the darkness.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: It was like, Ah! Okay, good. There she is. There she is. Still there.

 

ANNIE: And there are no crabs around her anymore. But ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: There were crab parts all over the sea floor below her.

 

ROBERT: So she killed them?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Yes.

 

ANNIE: So she’s ...

 

JAD: [laughs] Yes!

 

ANNIE: In her weakened state torn them apart with her arms.

 

JAD: Oh my God!

 

BRUCE ROBISON: All the folks in the control room on this she and pilots were all going, "Yay!" [laughs]

 

ANNIE: So you left for a week and during that time she fought, like, the battle of her life.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: That’s right.

 

ROBERT: Missed the whole thing.

 

ANNIE: And they’re counting the eggs every single time, and she is still at 160.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: We never saw any evidence that anybody had picked off one of the eggs.

 

ROBERT: Not a one?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Nope.

 

JAD: This is heroic!

 

ANNIE: It is heroic. She was wasting away and would eventually have to die, but it would have to be timed right with the hatching of the babies.

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

ANNIE: Because if she were to lose her grip and drift off of the eggs, then a crab could come and just, you know, have a huge brunch. I mean, there was this tension of her holding on until ...

 

ROBERT: They were ready.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Yes.

 

ROBERT: Well, doesn’t it seem to you, like, there’s people like, you know, say, "I’m gonna be dying tonight, but I’m gonna wait for Johnny to come home.”

 

ANNIE: [laughs] Yeah.

 

ROBERT: And then Johnny bursts through the door and look and exchange a glance. And then, poof! Mommy dies. It sort of feels a little like that.

 

ANNIE: Let’s move on to year three.

 

JAD: What?

 

ANNIE: She’s still there.

 

JAD: Three years?

 

ANNIE: Yeah, like ...

 

JAD: This is ...

 

ANNIE: I know! She’s getting worse and worse.

 

JAD: I cannot -- this is horrible and amazing at the same time.

 

ANNIE: I know! She has not eaten anything. They are, like, aghast. She is just like this titan. Year four -- we move onto year four. Like, it’s just, like, unbelievable time.

 

JAD: Oh my God.

 

ANNIE: Let me give you a sense of, like, what is happening. So, 2007. That’s when they saw her. Boris Yeltsin dies.

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

ANNIE: First iPhone released for sale in the USA. Big moments.

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

ANNIE: 2008, the economy crashes. Obama is elected. Like, these huge things are happening, right up -- right upstairs from her. She’s just still doing that same thing.

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

ANNIE: 2009. Usain Bolt breaks the world record for the 100-meter dash.

 

JAD: Bitcoin. I think bitcoin happened somewhere in there.

 

ANNIE: Bitcoin, okay. 2009, Michael Jackson dies.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

ANNIE: 2010, those Chilean miners are rescued after 69 days.

 

JAD: Oh my God.

 

ANNIE: I don’t know if you remember that.

 

JAD: Yeah, of course.

 

ANNIE: They were trapped underground.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

ANNIE: Haiti has a huge earthquake. The worst they ever had in 200 years. 2011 -- we’re moving onto 2011 now, the Arab Spring.

 

JAD: Oh my God.

 

ANNIE: Same-sex marriage is legalized in New York state. Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, and Osama Bin Laden all die.

 

JAD: All the while, Octomom has been sitting there withering, but killing crabs that come for her babies.

 

ANNIE: Yeah.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

ANNIE: Like, not eating, but somehow remaining vigilant.

 

JAD: Just seems crazy to me. Like, why would -- why would evolution make an animal that needs to gestate her babies that long?

 

ANNIE: Well, we don’t know. Bruce and Yan both said that maybe it’s because it’s so cold down there that everything happens more slowly. Or maybe you need super developed babies because it’s such a harsh environment. But basically, it’s still a mystery. Like, they don’t even know if Octomom is, like, this crazy freak of nature, or if she’s ordinary. Like, she's the only octopus of this species that anyone has ever watched do this.

 

JAD: Huh.

 

ANNIE: But my question was how. How can she survive this? Like, how can she just sit there not eating for four years, and not just -- just die?

 

YAN WANG: It’s just a totally bizarre thing, right?

 

ANNIE: It sounds like magic.

 

ANNIE: Lucky for us, this is exactly what Yan studied for her PhD. So when we come back from a quick break, together with Yan we're gonna find out how she does it and how far she can go.

 

JAD: Jad. RadioLab. Back with Annie McEwen and Octomom.

 

ANNIE: So before the break, we had landed on the very simple question of "How?" How does Octomom manage to stay alive and defend her eggs, not moving, no food, for over four years?

 

YAN WANG: Right, so we just didn't know ...

 

ANNIE: Well, Yan says the answer lies in a very peculiar fact about the octopus's brain, which helps her to pull off these last few deeply essential beats of her life.

 

YAN WANG: If we were to think about the nervous system as say, like, an orchestra.

 

ANNIE: To understand how this works, Yan says you can think of all the different parts of the octopus’s brain as different section in an orchestra.

 

YAN WANG: You know, like, the brass is going to take care of, like, vision or something like that. Or, you know, the strings are taking care of motor functions and things like that.

 

ANNIE: Maybe the bass is regulating heartbeat. The woodwinds taking care of memory. And as she swims along living her octopus life, the whole orchestra is playing. All the instruments doing their job. But as she lays her eggs, there's a shift.

 

YAN WANG: A shutting down of processes that are normally functioning to keep the body going.

 

ANNIE: Every instrument in that orchestra starts to hush.

 

YAN WANG: Everybody going quiet.

 

ANNIE: Except there's this one section of the orchestra ...

 

YAN WANG: Yeah, the optic glands. These are, like, two really tiny -- they're kind of the size of, you know, a grain of rice.

 

ANNIE: They sit right between her eyes.

 

YAN WANG: They have their solo at this point.

 

ANNIE: And would that be the opera singer, or who is that? Who is everyone quieting to hear?

 

YAN WANG: Well, let me think about this. It would not be, you know, a very common instrument. It’s not a huge part of the brain. So it wouldn't really be a string. I don’t think it would be like a wind instrument. Or maybe it would be a weird one, you know, a bassoon or something like that. One where there’s just one or two in a full orchestra.

 

ANNIE: Okay, I like that.

 

ANNIE: So as all the other parts of the nervous system begin to drop away, the bassoon, these tiny grains of rice, have their moment. They're playing a very complicated chemical song that Yan is only just beginning to piece together. But she knows that part of the work they're doing is triggering a bunch of different chemicals.

 

YAN WANG: Things like steroids and its insulin that enable it to stay alive without additional food intake.

 

ANNIE: And so all the while she’s down there, years and years, being visiting again and again by this robot, on the outside, she looks like a very old lady. Pale skin, cataracts, flabby muscles. A little pale blob in the darkness all alone. But on the inside, she's very much alive. Alive in this incredibly centered, focused way. Year after year after year after year, she's playing her heart out.

 

ANNIE: Um, Bruce? I just want to remind you about the chair thing.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Oh, sorry.

 

ANNIE: No problem, no problem.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: All right. Dylan’s offered me a -- a better chair. Let’s say a more silent chair, so let me pick up my butt out of this one.

 

ROBERT: Okay.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Move it over to another one. Thank you, Dylan.

 

ANNIE: Did you have -- did you have moments where you were, like, out buying eggs, bicycling, you know, cleaning the car, and just had this moment like, oh! She’s there -- I know exactly where she is. She’s doing her job. Like, these little moments of you living your life and her just constantly working as a mother?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Yeah, I thought about her all the time.

 

JAD: Okay so we are at year four, or -- is that where we are?

 

ANNIE: So we’re at year four and a half.

 

ROBERT: Four and a half years! [laughs]

 

JAD: Is that the world record for longest brooding period on planet Earth?

 

ANNIE: Yeah, it is.

 

JAD: Whoa!

 

BRUCE ROBISON: We had -- we had been there a month before and she was still there, looking pretty haggard I’ve gotta say, but she was hanging in there. And then one day we dropped down, and we’re flying in towards the rock.

 

ANNIE: He's watching the screen up on the ship just seeing darkness. Then there's the rocky outcrop. There's her spot.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: And she wasn’t there. We couldn't see her.

 

JAD: What do you -- what does that mean? Does that mean ...?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: We knew we were at the right place, we could see the -- the patch on the rock. And there were all of these tattered egg cases just in the spot where she had been.

 

ROBERT: Tattered egg cases means that the babies had been born?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Well, the first thing we did was search. Are there babies on the rock? Are the babies still here? Or did any of them survive? Or was it some sort of apocalyptic demise at the hands of all those hungry looking crabs?

 

ANNIE: So they’re frantically sort of searching around the rock. Searching and searching and searching. And then they begin to see little babies that are her species. And they see a little baby here ...

 

JAD: Aww. No way!

 

ANNIE: And a little baby there.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Little octopuses crawling around.

 

ROBERT: Oh!

 

BRUCE ROBISON: They’d been feeding and growing, and it was pretty clear that they were hatchlings from that clutch of eggs that we had observed.

 

ANNIE: Did they look like her? Like all the same little -- there's the crescent -- the crescent shape and the ...

 

ROBERT: [laughs]

BRUCE ROBISON: Sadly, no. And they were quite a bit smaller.

 

ANNIE: Yeah.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: But it was clear they were -- they were the same species.

 

ANNIE: And did you see her?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Nope. I’m certain that she had been consumed by some scavenger.

 

JAD: Oh my God. But you just want -- you just want to give her a moment just to see it.

 

ANNIE: Yeah. Well, we kinda asked Bruce, like, can you help us imagine what that moment might have been like for her?

 

ROBERT: Since you don’t know, because you missed it as usual, the actual big moment. Could you ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: [laughs] I must have gone out for a hamburger or something.

 

ANNIE: Yes!

 

ROBERT: [laughs] Could you, just in your mind’s eye, imagine the last moment here? Like, was she dusting the eggs or were the eggs beginning to hatch? Or what ...

 

BRUCE ROBISON: We suspected she stayed there until the last one had hatched.

 

ANNIE: You mean watching them?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Mm, maybe not watching them but feeling them. Guarding them.

 

ANNIE: Oh my gosh, that’s amazing!

 

BRUCE ROBISON: They are -- they are devoted moms.

 

ANNIE: So she would feel this activity that was new underneath her, and then know that it was time to finally let go?

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Right. Okay, relax Mom. It’s over. You did -- you did your job.

 

ANNIE: So cool. It’s like handing off the baton of life.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

YAN WANG: Yeah.

 

ANNIE: I love thinking about this story right now because we’re all, like, kind of -- I don’t know, just needing to, like, hold on. There’s this, like, sense of holding on.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

ANNIE: And waiting and being patient. And just like, I don’t know, having faith and that kind of thing. You know ...

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

ANNIE: … just kind of like being still and holding on. That she is just like giving us such a great model for it.

 

JAD: Wow, you know it’s -- what -- hold on one second, I just have to put an end to this madness. Give me a second.

 

ANNIE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go for it.

 

JAD: Emil, Taj, don’t come in here. I’m working. Oh my God. You know what I think about is the ...

 

ANNIE: What?

 

JAD: ... it’s so interesting. This is like the op -- this is like the absolutely wrong soundtrack to the story that you’re telling.

 

ANNIE: Oh, the kids. [laughs]

 

JAD: You were talking about a mother sort of lovingly ...

 

ANNIE: Oh ...

 

JAD: ... suffering and then dying on behalf of her jellybeans, and I have these kids who are just like, literally running around like savages right now because they’re stir crazy. No, you know what I think? I think about it like, it's so beautiful and heroic and poignant. But then I think about, like, she’s not telling -- like [laughs] -- if you take the story away and you just imagine her experience, she’s in the darkness for five years. And, like, I wonder if she -- I wonder -- she has no conception of anything except -- that somehow, the disconnect between the experience she’s having and the story we’re telling about it is everything that I need to think about right now, because we’re all trying to protect our jellybeans in a way. But -- but then if you think about the experience of that it’s just -- can feel frightening and lonely and dark, you know?

 

JAD: Thanks, Annie.

 

ANNIE: You're welcome.

 

JAD: This story was reported and produced by Annie McEwen with musical help from Alex Overington. Thanks to Kyle Wilson for playing the sexy saxophone for us. And a very big thank you to our bassoon player Brad Balliett, who provided the soundtrack for Octomom's darkest hours and finest moment. And of course, thanks to Bruce.

 

ROBERT: Okay, well we’ve kept you. So we should let you go.

 

ANNIE: Yeah, thank you so much Bruce.

 

ROBERT: Thank you.

 

ANNIE: I really appreciate it. Yeah, again.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Okay.

 

ANNIE: I think we got everything. So ...

 

ROBERT: Yeah, I think we did.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Good.

 

ANNIE: Yeah, your squeaky chair and all, it was perfect.

 

ROBERT: Oh, you don’t wanna do -- have him, like, rock on the chair a tiny bit?

 

ANNIE: Uh, oh! Actually ...

 

ROBERT: Maybe you should! Might be useful.

 

ANNIE: Might be -- actually just in terms of mixing purposes.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Alright, I’ll wheel -- I’ll wheel the other chair over and ...

 

ROBERT: Yes. And then just doodle with your body.

 

ANNIE: Yes. [laughs] A little dance routine.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Oh, yeah go ahead. Oh I guess, yeah.

 

ROBERT: So don’t say anything. Just make squeaks.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Okay. [squeaking]

 

ANNIE: Sort of reminds me of what she might hear under the water. Whales communicating and ...

 

ROBERT: Okay, that’s fine.

 

BRUCE ROBISON: Okay.

 

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening. Radiolab will be back with you next week.

 

[PAUL: Hi, this is Paul Larson from Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. And our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]

 

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