Watch female octopus drag male around during sex in rare footage captured off Indonesian island

A young male octopus gets comically dragged around the ocean floor mid-sex by an impatient female in rare new footage. 

The clip, filmed for the new National Geographic miniseries "Secrets of the Octopus," reveals an algae octopus (Abdopus aculeatus) in shallow water just off the coast of the island of Bunaken in Indonesia. The footage captures the moment he spots a female and begins his courtship with a passing cloud display — a behavior thought to be a form of communication, where an octopus' skin changes color in a wave-like manner. 

"The passing cloud display means different things to different cephalopods," series producer Adam Geiger told Live Science in an email. "With the algae octopus, the passing cloud display seems to be an expression of interest in mating… a general 'I'm available' signal." 

Related: Octopuses torture and eat themselves after mating. Science finally knows why.

After the female responds with her own colorful display, he makes his move, sticking up a papilla —  a skin bump the octopus can control to change its body shape — above his eye. He also creates a black and white striped pattern on his back to indicate he wants to fight or mate, marine biologist and filmmaker Alex Schnell says in the clip.   

The female is receptive, so he extends his specialized mating arm, known as a hectocotylus, and awkwardly attempts to find her mantle cavity — a muscular structure containing the vital organs, where sperm is deposited during mating. But he appears to take too long, and the female gets "impatient and hungry," series narrator Paul Rudd says in the footage. 

an octopus in shallow water being dragged along by a female during sex

The male octopus gets dragged around by the female after she gets impatient with sex.  (Image credit: National Geographic)

The female then starts pulling the male around as he hangs on with his hectocotylus. "It was surprising, and comical, to witness mating on the move," Geiger said. "The female [is] essentially dragging the male — hanging on for dear life — over the reef while she got on with other things. The Algae octopus were the only species in the series we witnessed mating this way, but who knows, others may do this, too." 

Observing octopus sex is relatively rare, and researchers have only observed mating behaviors in about a dozen species, Jennifer Mather, a cephalopod expert at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, told Live Science in 2015. 

Most octopuses live solitary lives, only coming together to mate, but the algae octopuses in the new series were surprisingly social, Geiger said.

"We were thrilled by how frequently they interacted — just saying hello, fighting, or mating. But they move very quickly through their little community, so following an individual was really tough," he added. "On one lucky day, after weeks of filming, we managed to track our hero for more than two hours until he successfully found a receptive female."

Algae octopuses are also pretty small — their bodies are around 3 inches (7 centimeters) and their arms are around 10 inches (25 cm) long. They were in water that was just 24 inches (60 cm) deep, so even tiny surface waves tossed them around. This made filming the interactions even tougher, Geiger said.

"Imagine trying to look through a straw to follow an ant, in a hurricane! Keeping a camera steady and the image composed and focussed while being sloshed about made filming these quick-moving octopus one of the most challenging sequences of the series," Geiger said. "Even with our team's nearly 80 years of combined experience filming underwater, the physics of these conditions were unique."

"Secrets of the Octopus" premieres on April 21 at 8 p.m. ET on National Geographic and is available to stream on April 22 on Disney+ and Hulu.

How to watch "Secrets of the Octopus"

You can watch "Secrets of the Octopus" on the cable channel National Geographic on Sunday, April 21 at 8pm ET. After that you can stream the show on Hulu in the U.S. and Disney Plus worldwide on April 22.

If you don't have cable, there are a few options you can try to watch the show. FuboTV has an entry-level Pro Plan, which gives you over 100 channels for $74.99 a month, but if you just want to dip your tentacles in (or should that read arms?) also comes with a free 7-day trial. Otherwise you could give Sling TV a go, which is currently $20 a month for the Sling Blue plan, a 50% saving on its standard price.

Hannah Osborne

Hannah Osborne is the planet Earth and animals editor at Live Science. Prior to Live Science, she worked for several years at Newsweek as the science editor. Before this she was science editor at International Business Times U.K. Hannah holds a master's in journalism from Goldsmith's, University of London.