Donald Leu, a researcher from the University of Connecticut, conducted a U.S. Department of Education-funded study of Internet literacy among so-called “digital natives,” fabricating the tree octopus to test students’ ability to evaluate information they find on the internet.
Researchers asked students to find out information about the endangered Pacific Northwest tree octopus. Students had no problem locating a Web site dedicated to the cause, “but insisted on the existence of the made-up story, even after researchers explained the information on the website was completely fabricated,” according to a press release.
The proffered description of the critter is admittedly quite persuasive:
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.
We must mention here that contrary to the news report, while he did set up the experiment, Donald Leu did not actually create the story of the octopus out of water: Lyle Zapato concocted this tall tale over a decade ago, and it’s apparently been a reliable test of gullibility, or something, ever since. Which the students would know, had they bothered to look it up on Wikipedia.