Summary of eRumor:
Calls to save the Pacific Northwest tree octopus from extinction have been in circulation for years.
The Pacific Northwest tree octopus is a fictional species that was dreamt up by a Washington-based author named Lyle Zapato in 1998.
First, we’ll start with the facts. There are about 300 species of octopuses. Some live in the deep sea and some live on reefs — but none live in trees. Octopuses breathe through gills and can only survive on land for a few a minutes under ideal conditions.
Still, Zapato created a very realistic website documenting the origins, habitat and behaviors of the (fictional) Pacific Northwest tree octopus, which has supposedly been driven to the brink of extinction by the fashion industry’s use of its desirable skin. The website, zapatopi.net/treeoctopus, is comprised of page after page of meticulously written information about the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, like this:
The Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) can be found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America. Their habitat lies on the Eastern side of the Olympic mountain range, adjacent to Hood Canal. These solitary cephalopods reach an average size (measured from arm-tip to mantle-tip,) of 30-33 cm. Unlike most other cephalopods, tree octopuses are amphibious, spending only their early life and the period of their mating season in their ancestral aquatic environment. Because of the moistness of the rainforests and specialized skin adaptations, they are able to keep from becoming desiccated for prolonged periods of time, but given the chance they would prefer resting in pooled water.
Everyone loves a good animal hoax, but claims about the endangered Pacific Northwest tree octopus have reemerged over and over because the website is so well written. For example, the website is attributed to the fictional Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Higgins Society in a brief mention at the bottom of the website. The fake university has a separate landing page complete with admissions requirements, academic programs and external links (to additional resources about the fictional university).
It’s not clear why the Pacific Northwest tree octopus was initially created. But, in recent years, it has been used to demonstrate the limits of internet literacy among students. That refers to their ability to separate credible, trustworthy information from outright lies on the internet.
In fact, the Pacific Northwest tree octopus was used by researchers at the University of Connecticut to test the internet literacy of middle-school students in a 2006 study. All 25 students taking part fell for the hoax, some students “vehemently insisted” the tree octopus was real after learning that it was a hoax, and most struggled to find proof that the website is fake after the fact, the university reports:
“These results are cause for serious concern,” says the project’s lead researcher, Don Leu, who holds the John and Maria Neag Chair in Literacy and Technology at UConn, “because anyone can publish anything on the Internet and today’s students are not prepared to critically evaluate the information they find there.”
Despite warnings of its extinction, the Pacific Northwest tree octopus likely isn’t going away anytime soon.
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