In Defense of the Endangered Tree Octopus, and Other Web Myths

This March marked the 10th anniversary of the campaign to save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from extinction. If you’re not familiar with the elusive tree octopus, it’s an arboreal cephalopod found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic National Park west of Seattle. Every spring the creatures migrate from their lairs in the forest canopy to their ancestral spawning grounds in the Hood Canal; the rainy climate keeps their skin moist the rest of the year. But logging and suburbanization have decimated this gentle species’ habitat and reduced the breeding population to critically low numbers, leading some to argue that it should be placed on the Endangered Species List.

The Pacific Northwest Tree OctopusDo I need to add at this point that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is completely fictional? Apparently, I do. Lyle Zapato, a Washington-based author and Web publisher, invented the tree octopus in 1998. The creature is the star of an extensive and hilarious parody website that has, improbably, worked its way into the center of the debate over literacy in the Internet age.

The question is whether children raised on the Web can parse reality properly. And every so often the educational establishment and the mainstream media—most recently, the New York Times—drag up Zapato’s site as an example of the kind of seemingly authoritative material that gives the Web a bad name, by fooling unsuspecting young Internet users into thinking it’s for real. Edutopia, the magazine of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, recently denounced the tree octopus site as full of “pseudoscience” and “outright lies.”

To me, such indignance over the untrustworthiness of the Internet is both amusing and a little sad. Yes, the Internet is a fertile breeding ground for hoaxes and misinformation. Yes, children must be taught how to sort truth from fiction. But come on! Without the occasional tree octopus, the Web would be a far poorer place.

The thing about hoaxes is that the best ones make you think a little harder about why you believe what you believe. One of my favorite examples—and I have to admit that I fell for it briefly, about five years ago—is Dog Island, an archipelago off the coast of Florida where people supposedly send their dogs to roam free. “Separated from the anxieties of urban life, dogs on Dog Island live a natural, healthy, and happy life,” the Dog Island site claimed. In reality, that’s all Dog Island was—a spoof website. But it sounded so nice, especially to a dog owner suffering from occasional guilt about keeping his pooch cooped up inside all day. (Then I remembered that my own dog is such a scaredy-cat about outdoor noises that when we go camping he wants to sleep in the car.)

The tree octopus’s transformation from harmless spoof into poster child for the hazards of the Web apparently began in 2006, when University of Connecticut research Donald Leu used the site in a study of online literacy among seventh graders. Leu asked 25 students from middle schools in Connecticut to review Zapato’s site. Interviewed later, all of the students said they believed that the tree octopus was real. Few of the students, Leu reported, could pinpoint the obvious clues that the site is a spoof, such as the information that the natural predator of the tree octopus is the Sasquatch. And even after Leu told them the site was a fake, a handful of the students continued to insist that the tree octopus is real.

The Times cited Leu’s findings in a hand-wringing feature article two Sundays ago asking whether reading on the Web is really reading at all. “Some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading—diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books,” the piece said. The article’s conclusion from Leu’s study? “Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy.”

But I think there are several other interpretations for Leu’s findings, not all of them so troubling. One is the possibility that education professors are persistently weak at judging whether seventh graders are pulling their legs. Another, more likely lesson is that kids are simply open-minded, and naturally receptive to far-fetched ideas until they have evidence to the contrary.

A rare sighting of the Pacific Northwest Tree OctopusAnd isn’t that the way kids should be, given how we’re inundated every day by scientific findings that are more fantastic, in their way, than Zapato’s fiction? It’s now known, for example, that at the center of the Milky Way galaxy there is a colossal black hole with a mass 4 million times that of our sun. Back here on Earth, there are fish that catch other fish using tongue-like limbs that have evolved into fishing reels, complete with bait. There are also microbes that thrive in the hellishly hot volcanic vents of the ocean floor. The Department of Defense, in the course of siting a network of low-frequency antennas for submarine communications in northern Michigan, discovered a single underground mushroom extending across more than 3,000 acres of land. Moreover, there is a mysterious dark energy that is apparently causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. You can’t turn on the Discovery Channel without running into half a dozen such jaw-droppers, any one of which is harder to believe than the idea that octopuses could live in trees. (Actually, one of the facts in this paragraph isn’t quite true. Can you tell which one?)

Wikipedia classifies the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website an “Internet hoax.” But I prefer to think of it as an experiment with reality—a hybrid of satiric humor and science fiction, made more piquant by the fact that, on the surface at least, it purports to be true. Skillful hoaxsters mix and match factual references into new blends that are just plausible enough to tweak our sense of reality—and to underscore, in the process, how bizarre life really is.

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I’ll be away on vacation in Alaska next week, so my next World Wide Wade column will appear on August 22. I’m mainly visiting family in Fairbanks. But you’ll be glad to know that I’ve also signed up for a three-day photo safari in search of the elusive and ferocious Denali Tundra Salmon.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

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