Sam Gon smiles in a selfie in front of a foggy, rocky mountainside with small shrubs and mosses growing amongst the rocks.
Tardigrade Habitat Dr. Gon in the cold high elevation habitat where Claxtonia goni and other water bears were found. © Sam Gon/TNC

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New Species of ‘Water Bear’ Named after Sam ‘Ohu Gon

A new species of Tardigrada, a phylum of eight-legged segmented micro-animals also known as water bears, has been named after Dr. Samuel M. ‘Ohukani‘ōhi‘a Gon III, Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Hawai‘i and Palmyra Chapter.

Claxtonia goni is described from specimens Gon collected years ago in the central “crater district” of Haleakalā National Park on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. The new species, quite distinct from other species of Claxtonia from other places in the world, lives in seasonally dry native moss on sparsely vegetated lava, and was present at several locations scattered across the park’s high elevation regions. 

In the scientific paper describing the species, authors Peter Degma, Harry A. Meyer and Juliana G. Hinto state, “The specific name goni is a genitive noun given in honour of Samuel M. ʻOhukaniʻōhiʻa Gon III, Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor at the Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi, in recognition of his contributions to the study of Hawaiian tardigrades.”

A black and white microscope image of a sausage-shaped creature with 8 little clawed legs.
A New Water Bear Species Claxtonia goni, a new species of tardigrade named after TNC’s Sam ‘Ohu Gon. The animal is about two times as wide as a strand of hair. © Degma et. al.

There are more than 1,300 known species in the phylum Tardigrada found in both terrestrial and freshwater habitats, with over 30 found in the Hawaiian Islands.

“Tardigrades are famous as one of the most resistant life forms in existence,” says Gon. “They can enter suspended animation in cyst form when their environment dries—and in that form survive incredible conditions such as hard vacuum, radiation, and extremes of temperature—then ‘come back to life’ when placed in water.”

Claxtonia goni,” adds Gon, “is a stout creature, resembling an armored blimp with eight stubby legs bearing sharp curved claws. It would be frightening, except that it is only two tenths of a millimeter long!”

Haleakalā is the world’s single richest place for water bears—thirty-six species were collected in just three days in a portion of Haleakalā National Park in 1985 by Gon and his university colleagues. By comparison, it took decades for scientists to find and describe the same number of tardigrades from the entire State of California.

Red and brown rocky slopes lead to mountain peaks up above the clouds.
Haleakalā Crater Claxtonia goni, a new species of Tardigrada named after TNC’s Sam ‘Ohu Gon, was found in the high elevation habitat of Haleakalā National Park. © TNC

Haleakalā is not the only place in the Hawaiian islands with high elevation lava habitats; huge areas of the Island of Hawaiʻi are also potentially excellent water bear habitat, so when Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park celebrated its 100 year anniversary in 2015 with a “bioblitz” (a brief citizen science exploration of the biological riches of the park), Gon led a mini-expedition in the park in search of water bears—and was successful, showing them to the public under a microscope.

“The bioblitz find opened the doors to explore the water bear fauna of Hawaiʻi Island,” says Gon, “and if our other native species are any example, it stands to reason that species of water bear unique to each island will be found.”

Tardigrades represent the unseen and overlooked native invertebrate life forms that are found in Hawaiian ecosystems. The conservation efforts of TNC and its partners protect the habitat of these and thousands of other native creatures, all of which have roles to play in the ecosystem.

“I am surprised and delighted to have this tiny native Hawaiian creature named in my honor, and for the opportunity to support the work of these scientists,” says Gon. “I am continually amazed at how much Hawai‘i has to offer in terms of biodiversity and undiscovered forms of life. We truly are a showcase of generative island evolution.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.