Evolution MegaLab launches evolution mega-study

Banded snail
Banded snailCourtesy mer de glace
Regular folks across Europe are being asked to take part in what’s being touted as one of the largest studies of evolution ever done.

Evolution MegaLab is requesting people living in the United Kingdom and the European continent to check the snail population in their areas and report their findings to the MegaLab website. The research study which was just launched by The Open University, will end six months from now and hopefully show how changes in climate and predation have affected the snail population over a relatively short span of time. Project researchers are specifically interested in two banded snail species, Cepaea hortensis and Cepaea nemoralis.

“Banded snails wear their genes on their backs,” said Professor Jonathan Silvertown of The Open University. “Their colors and banding patterns are marvelously varied – but the darker shell types are more common in woodland, where the background color is brown, while in grass banded snails tend to be lighter-colored, yellow and stripier. These differences are thought to have evolved over time because they provide camouflage from thrushes, which like to eat the snails.”

“However, there has been a big decrease in the numbers of song thrushes in some places over the last 30 years and we’d like the public to help us to find out whether, with fewer predators about, the different snail types are less faithful to their particular habitats.”

As this video explains, it’s fairly easy to distinguish one snail species from the other. The edge of the shell opening (known as the lip) is white on C. horntensis, and brown (or black) on C. nemoralis. The species come in three different colors, yellow, pink, and brown, and can display three different styles of banding: no bands, single band (mid-band), or many bands. These variations in coloring and banding help the snails survive in the environments they happen to be living and the MegaLab researchers are interested in how recent changes in climate and predator populations have changed the snails’ appearances.

Everything the public needs to participate in the study can be found at the MegaLab website, including instructions and downloadable documents to help gather data. Observers are asked to look for snails in their areas, record specifics characteristics about what they find, and then report the findings to the Evolution MegaLab site. The collected data will then be compared with historical records to see if any noticeable evolutionary changes have taken place. The site cautions that only adult snails should be studied and recorded as many of the snails’ specific characteristics are missing in the juvenile or infant stages of the animals.

Kids in the UK are already showing interest. Here’s a cute video documenting one group’s efforts to help gather data.

For now the banded snail observation project, which is supported by the Royal Society and British Council, is limited to the United Kingdom and Europe but who knows, maybe a similar project will be started up in the United States.

Story at The Open University site
Video of Cepaea nemoralis taking a long walk

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