The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists over 3,000 kinds of animals on its “Red List,” which is commonly referred to as “The Endangered Species List.”
Many of these you’ve likely heard of, like the whooping crane, the wild water buffalo, or the Manta Ray.
One that you may not have heard of, however, is the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, which has never actually been placed on the Endangered Species List, despite calls for its inclusion going back to the late 1990s.
The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus has the Latin name “Octopus paxarbolis,” which comes from “pax”, the Latin root word from which the name “Pacific” is derived, and “arbolis,” meaning tree. “Octopus” just means “Octopus”.
The PNTO is a highly inquisitive and intelligent being, with the largest ratio of brain-to-body of any living mollusk.
Much like salmon, these octopods migrate north to go on spawning runs where they can lay their eggs in a safe environment.
Many of them travel north to the Hood Canal to find mates, a sharp contrast to their usual solitary lives that feature very little interaction with fellow members of their species.
What is the Natural Habitat for the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus?
The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is an amphibious creature, which means that it can survive both on land and in the water.
They can last for days without rain to sustain them, but they tend to enjoy being in water over land, which can make them difficult to spot. They can remain hidden for long periods, like the snipe in that episode of Cheers where they go snipe hunting.
Its primary habitat is the Olympic National Forest, near Olympia, Washington, which features over 250,000 square acres of old-growth trees. This provides them with a perfect location to avoid sea-based predators.
99.9% of the remaining creatures can be found within 10 miles of the park, although there are stories that a lost tree octopus was found in Norway a few years back.
The park is also a great place for them to enjoy the water, as it contains Lake Cushman and Lake Crescent, as well as access to the nearby Puget Sound.
Why Are They Endangered?
There are two main reasons why the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is endangered. One of them is environmental and the other is biological.
The tree octopus trade, which was outlawed in the 1970s, claimed the lives of every other species of tree octopus, leaving the Pacific Northwest as the only survivor.
The trade was mostly focused on their skins, although some of them were poached in an attempt to study their brains and understand why some of the species were more intelligent than humans.
The other reason is, put simply, the circle of life. Their traditional predators are the American bald eagle and the sasquatch, many of whom live in and around Olympic National Park.
This is why they grew to climb trees: the cover of the tree branches and the leaves makes them difficult for eagles to spot.
On the other end of the life cycle, their spawning runs often end in tragedy. After the mating is complete, the males return to the forest to hunt, while the women stay and guard the eggs.
Their devotion to their offspring is so intense that they do nothing else but watch over the young until they hatch.
This has been detrimental to the continued growth of the species, as the guardians do not eat or sleep during this time, often resulting in premature death.
How Can I Help Protect The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus?
These remarkable creatures need our help to survive and assist scientists in their research, which never harms the animals.
There are several important things that you can do to make sure the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus does not join the passenger pigeon or the dodo on the “extinct” list.
First, you can write a letter to or call your Congressional representative and ask them to introduce or support legislation related to protecting these octopods.
I specifically say “your” Representative because it is not necessary to reach out to the Congresspeople of Washington State. They’ve been working on the issue for years and already understand its importance. You could write them a “Thank You” note if you’d like.
Second, you can Tweet at celebrities and ask them to consider being the new face of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus protection movement.
Just make sure to choose the right celebrity. No disrespect to Sean Penn, but his activism is a bit controversial in some parts and might not be effective. You could try Taylor Swift or Keanu Reeves, nobody hates those two.
No matter how you choose to do it, it’s extremely important that you do everything you can to help ensure the survival of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus for future generations.
Okay, I have a quick confession to make. There’s a reason I mentioned the Cheers episode where the guys from the bar take Frasier out snipe hunting.
In the episode, it’s revealed that there’s no such thing as a snipe and the whole thing was a prank on Frasier to welcome him to the group.
The Pacific Northwest Octopus, similarly…does not actually exist. It is a hoax, albeit one that is good-natured and with some important points behind it.
Also, I’d like to point out that everything I said about Olympic National Park that doesn’t involve the fictional octopods is true and you should visit it, it’s very beautiful.
Creator and Origin of the Hoax
The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was invented by an internet humorist who used the pseudonym Lyle Zapato and whose real name is unknown.
The website, zapatopi.net/treeoctopus, was launched in 1998 as a prank by Zapato, with the domain name being a combination of his pen name and the term “octopi,” a term the website ironically does not use.
Zapato is still semi-active on Twitter using the handle @LyleZapato, although he only has 345 followers and mainly Retweets posts involving the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.
Importance in Media Literacy
Despite being entirely fictional, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is still very important as a media literacy tool.
Many unsuspecting people fall for the prank all the time and genuinely believe that a tree octopus exists, despite the claims on the website becoming more outlandish the farther down you read.
For this reason, many schoolchildren are shown Zapato’s website, shown pictures, and other online materials urging them to take action to protect the creatures.
They are then told that it is a hoax and everything they just read was made up, which teaches them the value of double-checking information, checking sources, and generally not believing everything you read on the internet.
Use in Scientific Studies
Zapato’s website has also been used in two separate scientific studies of schoolchildren and their abilities to differentiate between fact and fiction on the internet.
The first study was conducted in 2007 and centered around 53 of the top 13-year-old students in Connecticut and South Carolina.
The students were shown the website and then asked a series of questions about it, including being asked to rank its trustworthiness. 27 of the 53 students ranked it as “very reliable.”
Only six students described the information on Zapato’s website as “unreliable.” It was later revealed that all six students had recently taken a course on media literacy that highlighted the exact website and they already knew it was fiction.
A study from The Netherlands conducted in 2017 of 27 students between the ages of 11 and 12 revealed that only two students were correctly able to identify the information as fictional.
The story of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus goes to show the importance of verifying information and not believing everything you read on the internet.
Accidentally believing misinformation can happen to anyone and is nothing to be ashamed about. I myself have repeated things I read on the internet to people in real life and looked like a fool when I was proven to be wrong.
That’s a major reason why I double-check all the information I get online and do my due diligence to make sure I’m not repeating a hoax or taking an article from The Onion as fact.