Thursday, March 27, 2008

PaleoProfile: Sam Gon III

Well, I've been promising some great new material for a while now, and this is the centerpiece.

I am pleased to announce a new feature on Trilobite Blog, PaleoProfile! The idea in to conduct a blog interview (bloggerview) with someone (preferably famous!) involved in paleontology every second week.

This week, for the very first edition of PaleoProfile, we present Sam Gon III. If you have ever looked up trilobites online, you have likely found his seminal work, A Guide to the Orders of Trilobites. The website has been listed as a web resource by Universities (Harvard, Manchester), and Libraries (Smithsonian, Cornell). In short, no better resource for trilobites exists online. Beyond trilobites, Mr. Gon is a highly respected Hawaiian ecologist. So, without Further ado.

PaleoProfile: Sam Gon III

I always like to hear how people got interested in things. There aren't any trilobites to be found in Hawaii. So what was it that got you interested in the first place? I know for me, it was seeing the amazing specimens from Morocco that first piqued my interest.

I am a biologist, so living things have always fascinated me. Moreover, their relationships to each other, and therefore the course of the evolution of life on earth. Arthropods are amazing creatures, and trilobites are an amazingly diverse group of ancient arthropods. When I realized just how diverse trilobites were, I wanted to know a bit more about them, and when I found there were (at the time) 8 orders of trilobites, I wanted to know on what basis you could place any given trilobite into its proper order. I found it was not a straightforward thing at all! So my curiosity piqued, I dove deeply into trilobite systematics, and in learning more about them, found I was amassing information that should be shared on the web. Thus the Guide to the Orders of Trilobites was born, as well as my unflagging interest in this group.

In condensing and organizing a great deal of material into "A Guide to the Orders of Trilobites," you have created what I consider to be the best resource available online for trilobite information. Apparently I'm not alone either. The site receives hundreds of hits a day. That's a lot of trilobite fans! What do you think it is about trilobites that fascinates so many people?

I think I said it well enough on the website, but between their amazing diversity of form, their extreme old age (anything half a billion years old and still recognizable as a once-living thing is mind-boggling!), and the fact that just about anyone can own one and hold such an exceptional fossil in one hand, how can trilobites NOT be fascinating?

Trilobites were an extremely large group. The sheer number of species (over 17,000 described), as well as the truly massive number of specimens unearthed every year, make the study of trilobites somewhat broader than the study of smaller groups. We have such an incredible wealth of evidence and knowledge about them, and yet even so, there is a great deal unknown. If you could discover the answer to one trilobite mystery, what would it be?

That's a hard question, since there are so many questions to ask - if there could be a clear and definitive answer to the relationships and origins of all of the orders, so we could readily trace the origins of the trilobite radiations from their explosive origins in the Cambrian, that would be amazing to me.

How about a favourite trilobite? If there a particular group that really interests you, or even a favourite specimen you have that you really like?

I confess an interest in the bumpy order Lichida, but one of my favorite specimens was given by a friend, it is a nearly perfectly round specimen of Nobiliasaphus nobilis, for all the world like a coin stamped with a trilobite. You can see its image here:

In addition to "A Guide to the Orders of Trilobites," You also run "The Anomalocaris Homepage," which describes the Anomalocarid group. These are creatures close to my heart, because of my close proximity to the Burgess Shale formation. Should we expect to see this page expand as new research on this group is revealed?

Yes, though it seems that there have not been any breakthrough articles on the group since the turn of the millennium! If you know of any, please let me know and I'll add the new information and citations in a flash!

You've been deeply involved in Hawaiian ecology for several decades, and you're a member of the Nature Conservatory of Hawaii. But you've also done cultural work, including study of Hawaiian chant and hula. People often mentally separate the areas of natural history and human cultural history, and study only one or the other. Based on your work, do you think these two areas should be separate, or studied as aspects of the same common history?

Although there are major overlaps between western science and Hawaiian traditional knowledge, there are also fundamental differences, and I find it is good stimulation for the brain and spirit to jump across channels of thought and epistemology and enjoy both the similarities and differences.

As an ecologist, as well as an amateur paleontologist, does it ever seem strange to jump back and forth between trying to preserve environments before they're lost, and trying to rediscover environments that were lost millions of years ago?

The key connection between my paleontological interests and my conservation biology interests is celebration of diversity of life. Both fields force you to appreciate changing worlds, and while we can't do anything about the extinction of trilobites, there is an obligation to preserve and protect the diversity of life we have today.

Is there anything else you'd like to add? Any big new projects that you'd like to announce, or things you'd like to advertise?

The latest development in my hardcopy adaptation of the trilobite website is that it is now available in electronic form as a pdf. You can find the link to it here: Also, the full archive of the Trilobites of the Month, for the past 7 years, is now available on Just go there and search all photos for Nobiliasaphus, and you'll find my favorite trilobite specimen image, and then see the link to "Sam Gon's Trilos" thanks to a colleague on flickr. Nothing else major brewing, but an ongoing invitation to anyone who is interested in trilobites, paleontology and evolution of life on earth to feel free to contact me at any time.

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