Marine Station Key to Octopus Research

Graduate student Kirt Onthank finishes two years of research at WWU

By: Becky St. Clair

Onthank has been working with the Red Octopi since the summer of 2005.

Every biology major at WWU is required to spend a summer studying marine biology at Rosario Beach, WWU’s marine station near Anacortes, Wash. This is not, however, one of those requirements that students dread. It is, in fact, something most students look forward to.

Kirt Onthank certainly enjoyed his time at Rosario Beach during the summer of 2005. During that time, Onthank developed a keen interest in octopuses, specifically Octopus Rubescens, or the East Pacific Red Octopus. The Red Octopus, as it is commonly called, is prolific in the ocean waters of the Pacific Northwest, including the waters near Rosario Beach, where Onthank first encountered the creature.

After Onthank graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 2006, he continued on as a biology graduate student at WWU, and decided to do his project on the Red Octopus. After presenting his idea to David Cowles, professor of biology, Onthank began collecting octopuses for his graduate research, with Cowles as his mentor and advisor.

Onthank’s goal was to determine if the fact that Red Octopuses prefer crabs over clams if given the choice means their metabolism runs more efficiently on crabs, and also what place these specific octopuses hold in the ocean food chain.

To collect the necessary data, Onthank utilized part of a system Cowles had set up to study certain crustaceans, such as crabs and shrimp. Onthank made a few modifications to the system and soon had a way to measure the oxygen consumption, ammonia production, and carbon dioxide production of the octopuses.

“Taking measurements of their metabolism gives us an idea of how large a link in the food chain these octopuses form,” says Onthank. “We use these measurements to track how much of the food they eat is turned into body mass, how much is lost as feces, and how much is converted into energy for movement and work.”

Over the course of his research, Onthank has captured, studied, and released 30 Red Octopuses from Admirality Beach, near WWU’s marine station at Rosario Beach. He kept each octopus for approximately a month before releasing it into its natural habitat. The final three are still in a lab for Onthank’s final observation, but will be released at the conclusion of his research.

Onthank has enjoyed the benefit of studying the octopuses at Rosario Beach Marine Station, as well. With the bigger tanks provided at the station, Onthank was able to observe octopuses as large as 7 feet in length. The tanks on the College Place campus allowed him to study smaller octopuses close-up, and is where Onthank did a majority of his research.

“I really love what I’m doing, and I’m so fortunate to be at WWU,” says Onthank. “Its strong biology program and fabulous marine station have been key elements in allowing me to pursue this research. I really feel that biological research is what I was designed to do.”

In addition to writing his master’s thesis and getting a degree from his research, Onthank hopes to publish his findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and will likely use it as a base for future research as he pursues a doctorate degree in marine biology.

“Kirt’s work capitalizes on some of the greatest strengths of WWU’s biology program: superb access to marine species at Rosario, and creative use of our excellent lab facilities here on the College Place campus,” says Cowles. “Our biology department has a strong commitment to opportunities for student research at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Kirt’s octopus study is just one of several research projects taking place here right now.”

For more information on WWU’s biology undergraduate program, call the biology department at 509-527-2602. For information on the biology graduate program, call WWU’s Office of Graduate Studies at 509-527-2421.

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