Sometimes visitors notice that a few of our larger animals appear to live in relatively small tanks.

We love when folks bring this up to our staff because it shows that our passionate visitors are thinking about the health of our animals, and what kinds of environments are the right fit for them!

Our team of aquarists takes special care to make sure every animal is housed in a tank that not only shows off its habitat, but also supports the animal’s health and well-being. Sometimes that means an animal lives in a tank that appears small, but is actually accurate to the type of environment that animal would inhabit out in the wild.

octopus and suckers on glass
Freya the giant Pacific octopus in her Olympic Coast Sanctuary lair
Exhibit Size

Let’s look at the octopus exhibit as an example. On Level 3 of the Aquarium in our Northern Waters gallery, visitors can view not one, but two giant Pacific octopus. The two octopus (you’d say octopuses if there were two different species) live in side-by-side tanks that are separated by a glass wall. To the visitors, one octopus tank is closest to the front, and the other is behind it. In the picture above you can see Freya close to the glass and way in the background you can one of Professor’s arms on the glass wall. That wall creates a barrier between the two octopus, which supports their natural inclination to be solitary animals; with a wall between them, the two octopus are able to feel comfortable and at home in their individual tanks without needing to compete for space. However, the wall also allows visitors to see both octopus habitats at once.

Exhibit Design

This is a great example of how exhibit design can support not just animal health, but also visitor experience and understanding of animals in their habitats.

But some visitors wonder if the giant Pacific octopus — which can grow to stretch over 10 feet wide in the wild — feel cramped in their tanks. The answer to this question is simple; it’s very unlikely, based on what we know about their behavior in the wild. Observations of giant Pacific octopus in the wild show that these animals choose to make their homes out of small caves or create “dens” out of rocks on the ocean floor. Giant Pacific octopus seem to prefer small, enclosed areas for their habitat rather than large, expansive, open spaces. That means that even if the two octopus at the Aquarium lived in much larger tanks (for example, the Giant Ocean Tank), they would probably spend most of their time cuddled up in a small cave or secluded area within the reef.

astro turf on wall of enclosure
Exhibit fun fact: The dividing walls between the two tanks above the water are covered in Astroturf, which prevents the octopus from getting a grip and climbing out of the tanks!

Here at the Aquarium, we focus first and foremost on the health of our animals. Our aquarists make sure that each animal lives in a tank that supports its needs in terms of space, water chemistry, temperature, and interactions with other animals. Sometimes the needs of those animals might seem unusual to us, but we look at those cases as unique opportunities to learn more about them, and appreciate how mysterious so much of nature still is. There’s always more to learn about the ocean!

The next time you visit the aquarium, take some time to learn more about animals in their habitats with these thought-provoking questions:
• Why are these specific animals living in the same tank together?
• Do you see any animals that might be predators or prey in the wild?
• What kind of a habitat is represented by this tank?
• How do the New England Aquarium aquarists keep the animals in this tank healthy?

Learn more about animal care at the Aquarium!

Check out our most recent Harborside Chat with Aquarium President and CEO Vikki Spruill. She spoke with our VP of Animal Care Mark Smith to learn how we care for the animals at the Aquarium and what we’re doing to protect species in the wild.