An octopus is one of the most intelligent non-human species on Earth, can manipulate objects, and has lots of other interesting adaptations (e.g. the ability to change color). But, an average octopus has a life expectancy of less than five years.

What evolutionary adaptations could cause the average octopus to have a longer lifespan of 40 years or more on average?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm assuming that adapting to have a longer lifespan is too glib an answer to count? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jun 29, 2017 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings Most definitely too vague. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 29, 2017 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ How about by becoming a jellyfish? $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jun 30, 2017 at 5:47
  • $\begingroup$ Is "making them produce telomerese for their whole life cycle" too glib an answer to count? $\endgroup$
    – xDaizu
    Jun 30, 2017 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ Having shells and green pigment? It works for turtles, at least. $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2017 at 23:03

5 Answers 5


Actively raise young

Octopuses, or at least the bigger examples of octopuses like the giant pacific octopus, are fairly big, and really smart. Those are usually the hallmarks of an animal with a fairly long life, but octopuses live fast and die young for one major reason: they devote their lives (or rather, the end of their lives,) to protecting a huge number of eggs, which then hatch and drift up to the surface, where they effectively live as plankton. Since parenting stops when the eggs hatch, it makes sense, from a reproductive fitness standpoint, for octomoms to work themselves literally to death protecting their eggs and ensuring that a high percentage of them hatch.

If young octopuses, rather than drifting free, were intensively cared for by their parents, who actively protected them and hunted to provide them with food, there would be strong evolutionary pressure for parents to remain fit and healthy, at least until their young were relatively mature.

Parental protection and feeding would also provide a strong motivator for females not to kill and eat their mates. While, for a single female, guarding her eggs until they hatch without eating means that a single large meal is more important than a second parent, if octopuses needed to actively hunt to ensure the survival of their young, there would be a strong pressure for cooperative parenting to evolve. For males, at least, this would lead to significantly longer life spans.

Live in groups

Another behavioral change that could lead to longer life spans would be group living, particularly if the octopuses were able to cooperatively defend each other and their young. Octopuses living in such and environment would stand to benefit from the presence of larger octopuses to protect them from attacks, and if some sort of long-distance signalling were evolved, would also have a greater ability to spot and avoid predators.

Octopuses are also capable of learning from one another. In group-dwelling octopuses, it might make more sense for individuals to have long life spans, in order for young to more effectively learn how to survive in their environments.

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    $\begingroup$ Heh... octomoms... $\endgroup$
    – Mr Lister
    Jun 30, 2017 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ These answers aren't so much the adaptations themselves as changes in behavior that would cause evolutionary pressure towards longer lifespans. $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2017 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Shufflepants Despite the headings and the focus on the consequences, it is still apparent from the answer that this implies a shift in reproductive biology and the fact that the shift can be pretty subtle is actually quite encouraging for the long lived octopus project. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 30, 2017 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Shufflepants I am simply saying that if you modified an octopus's genes to have better cell repair and to produce telomerese that this would have little or no impact on its life span because octopi rarely die from lack of cell repair or old telomeres (which manifest as physical aging through degradation of organ function), because poor cell repair or old telomeres are very rarely the cause of the death of an octopus. Male octopi usually die because predators or a mate eats them. Female octopi usually die of starvation while tending their eggs alone or because predators eat them. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 30, 2017 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ Am I the only one to wonder why the term octopi or octopodes is not being used? $\endgroup$
    – nijineko
    Jul 1, 2017 at 3:55

Be bigger

Larger animals tend to live longer. Obviously, it takes longer to mature to a larger size, so as the animal gets larger, it will take longer to reach its sexually mature size. The creature will then undergo whatever adaptations it needs to so that it lives longer.

Be smarter

The smarter a creature is, the more it can learn in its lifetime. If a creature then applies this intelligence to increase it's survival chances, the creature's evolution will point it in the direction of longer life, because more accumulated knowledge will be more useful. A more intelligent creature will evolve to live longer.

Don't die after laying eggs

The Pacific Giant Octopus females stop eating to monitor their eggs after they are laid. Then they die. This is obviously not conducive to a long life. In order to have long lives, female octopuses should evolve to be able to breed and lay eggs more than once. Perhaps they can form pairs and have the male octopus help watch the eggs.

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    $\begingroup$ The third part of this answer dominates. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Jun 29, 2017 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ The first and third make sense. The second is the Octopus paradox. They are already extremely smart compared to almost anything else in the ocean except dolphins, yet have short lives. They are the counter-example to the general rule that more intelligent creatures live longer. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 29, 2017 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ A correlative reason why larger animals live longer is that their hearts beat slower, but octopi are already a counter example to the rule that a slower beating heart lives longer. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jun 30, 2017 at 6:29
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    $\begingroup$ Again, "be smarter" doesn't really apply to Octopuses/Cephalopods as they some of the smartest animals in nature, especially when you consider that some relatively unintelligent animals can live far longer. $\endgroup$
    – ayahuasca
    Jun 30, 2017 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ Why don't they form pairs with female octopi? I'm aware I'm anthropomorphizing them a bit but it makes as much sense to me as pairing up with male octopi. $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2017 at 19:11

You need to entirely rework their circulatory and respiratory systems, take it easy, and watch the salt.

Even though it's already at around 40-50 beats per minute (humans average 60), make their hearts beat even slower. That's going to be tricky though, because octopi have some pretty funny stuff going on with their circulatory system.

Common octopi have three hearts, one on each gill and one main one. For [reason?] the main heart stops when they swim around. Because of this, they have to store some backup oxygen in large blood sinuses behind their eyes and in their gut, for in cases of "physiological stress".

The octopusheart rate does not change significantly with exercise, though temporary cardiac arrest of the systemic heart can be induced by oxygen debt, almost any sudden stimulus, or mantle pressure during jet propulsion. Its only compensation for exertion is through an increase in stroke volume of up to three times by the systemic heart, which means it suffers an oxygen debt with almost any rapid movement. The octopus is, however, able to control how much oxygen it pulls out of the water with each breath using receptors on its gills, allowing it to keep its oxygen uptake constant over a range of oxygen pressures in the surrounding water. –Wiki

Don't make it have to swim around too much.

That might sound like a no-brainer, but it is especially important to octopi because of their means of locomotion via the location of their gills, and the oxygen requirements of a high functioning brain. Although they have an exceptional ability to extract oxygen from water through their gills and their skin, the efficiency of their circulatory system (and in turn, their respiratory system and cognitive ability) is inhibited when they swim.

the octopus uses a jet mechanism that involves creating a much higher pressure in their mantle cavity that allows them to propel themselves through the water. As the common octopus’ heart and gills are located within their mantle, this high pressure also constricts and puts constraints on the various vessels that are returning blood to the heart. Ultimately, this creates circulation issues and is not a sustainable form of transportation, as the octopus cannot attain an oxygen intake that can balance the metabolic demands of maximum exertion.

crawling increases metabolic demands greatly, requiring they increase their oxygen intake by approximately 2.4 times the amount that is required for a resting octopus.

Shadwick and Nilsson concluded that the octopus circulatory system is “fundamentally unsuitable for high physiologic performance.”


Make it as big as possible.

As animals get bigger, from tiny shrew to huge blue whale, pulse rates slow down and life spans stretch out longer, conspiring so that the number of heartbeats during an average stay on Earth tends to be roughly the same, around a billion. –kottke.org

Can you think of an appropriate environment that would be safer?

They are exposed to a wide variety of temperatures in their environments, however their preferred temperature ranges from about 15 °C to 16 °C. They have an acceptable ambient temperature range of 13-28 °C, with their optimum for maximum metabolic efficiency being about 20 °C.

The receptors on its gills allows it to keep its oxygen uptake constant in a wide range of oxygen levels in the surrounding water, so that you can play with, however

It has been shown that octopuses have an average minimum salinity requirement of 27g/L, and that any disturbance introducing significant amounts of fresh water into their environment can prove fatal.

This likely complicated by the fact that

they are conformers. This means that they adapt to match the osmotic pressure of their environment, and because there is no osmotic gradient, there is no net movement of water from the organism to the seawater, or from the seawater into the organism.

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    $\begingroup$ Fascinating data points about octopus physiology, but not much of a convincing case that these factors are important contributors to their short lifespans. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 30, 2017 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke - Agreed, but neither is dying after copulation. Have we ever sterilized, radio tagged, returned them to the sea, and then tracked their lifespans afterwards? $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jun 30, 2017 at 21:45

An octopus is an intelligent creature, stuck with a "reproduce once, lay thousands of eggs, and then die" life cycle. To benefit from a longer life and evolve to have one, a lot would have to change. Of course what you'd choose to include in a story is up to you.

Let's start simple. For a male octopus to live longer, he may just need a mutation that deactivates (or fails to activate) the "death genes" after mating. Then he may be able to live as long as he can avoid being lunch or any kind of injury. So if you just want one octopus swimming around, contemplating the cruelty and wonder of life for years, you're done. But for the mutation to spread, of course it would need to give his offspring some advantage.

A female octopus lives for a time after laying her eggs, to protect them and fan water over them so they have enough oxygen. She does this to the exclusion of feeding herself (perhaps she has death genes, as well, so feeding is irrelevant). To live longer, as it is now, she'd have to abandon her eggs (or at least care for them less). Of course that's not an advantage, and may stop her genes from getting into the next generation entirely.

If they became cyclic maters, and cared for the eggs together, that would bring more of their genes into future generations. But there's a reason they don't live that way now. Too many would strain the food supply. And an octopus lives a solitary life, avoiding predictors through cunning and stealth—too many in an environment would make predictors more familiar with their tricks.

So unless they somehow happened to find an environment that had no predators and lots of food, they'd need to deal with both food and safety in very different ways. Perhaps it's my species bias, but I tend to think of ways to do this that would mimic human advancements.

Manipulate the coral to grow into protective structures. Promote growth of other species, like farming. Form a symbiotic relationship with another species, like we did with wolves, to help protect the underwater structure and farm from predictors. I don't know what an octopus could bring to such a relationship, but they are much better at escaping than fighting, so they'd need muscle. Obviously they'd need to be social to do all this, and learn to communicate.

Octopus can manipulate the environment. They are strong, and smart. But I doubt they could evolve this way. For one thing, they don't have stamina, and building and maintaining such a system would take a lot of work. They have copper-based blood (like a Vulcan); it evolved to deal with the pressure at depth. Compared to our blood, it is less efficient at carrying oxygen, and it is thicker and harder to push around their circulatory system. So they tend to expend energy in short bursts, and then they are exhausted.

So I'm not really sure what natural conditions would allow them to benefit from a long life. Perhaps if a new sea opened up, an octopus with multiple mating cycles would help fill up their niche faster, but the situation would eventually stabilize and be similar to existing seas.

I keep thinking it would have to involve another species, to evolve naturally. Perhaps if they developed a very close symbiotic relationship, they hitch a ride and get protection in exchange for pulling off lampreys and companionship...? Intelligent creatures on land seem to have some recognition of other intelligent creatures, and sometimes reach out to them. But intelligent land animals are already social, so an octopus may not think this way.

I hope that gives you some ideas to work with.

  • $\begingroup$ Great ideas on avoiding Malthusian pressures. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 30, 2017 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ An alternative strategy is to intensively raise just 1 or 2 offspring per cycle, making it possible to still feed oneself. Perhaps the babies stick around until maturity, assisting with raising the next cycle, and learning lessons from mother. She could similarly remain useful post-reproductive age, as human and elephant grandmothers do. Anyway, the maximum population is fixed, regardless of mating strategy. $\endgroup$ Jul 1, 2017 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelMacAskill "Anyway, the maximum population is fixed, regardless of mating strategy." If the population remains the same, in an environment with parents and even grandparents, then less young would have to survive into the next generation. Evolutionary forces favor more offspring surviving, which is why the adults die now. $\endgroup$
    – Verena
    Jul 1, 2017 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ That's why I'm trying to find ways that more individuals can survive into the next generation (perhaps by making protective structures, or forming a symbiotic relationship with another species). The way they raise young would tend to change, as well, and I do mention that both parents could care for the young together. But, in any case, the real stumbling block for an older octopus to have worth is to find a scenario where they help more offspring survive into the next generation. $\endgroup$
    – Verena
    Jul 1, 2017 at 17:57

Live in a pacific enviroment

There are two ways to envolve based on the dangerous-level of the enviroment:

  • Dangerous: in a dangerous enviroment you can't live much years because each second you live there is a small chance of die by a depredator (or disease, hunger, thirst, heat, radiation, etc, all bad things), so it's necesary for you be prepared to live much years, you will die before that! It's less energy and resources costly kill you and have childs that recuperate your body.
  • Not dangerous: in a "heaven" enviroment you can live a lot of years because no one or nothing will try to kill you. Here it's more easy to stay alive that having childrens and them grow up.
    To live more, having ofsping need to be an more expensive than staying you alive.

PD: Also I am agree with the kingledion answer.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Can you think of an appropriate environment that would be safer? $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 29, 2017 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Ohwilleke, sorry, but that is nearly impossible, or at least unrealistic. See this question. $\endgroup$
    – Ender Look
    Jun 29, 2017 at 22:10

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