30 Mar 2009

See evolution at a snail’s pace: Public science project launches

Explore evolution with the MegaLab

Explore evolution with the MegaLab

Snails, often the unloved blight of gardeners, are being put under the microscope with a new public science project being launched today (Monday 30 March) by The Open University. The Evolution MegaLab is a mass public research programme which is investigating how ordinary banded snails - found in back gardens, river banks and parks - have evolved over the last 40 years, by comparing data supplied by members of the public with a database of more than 8,000 historical records.

The project runs from April to October 2009, spanning Europe, and relies on members of the public doing their own snail hunts and submitting their findings to the website at When data is received, people will get personalised interpretations of their observations. At the end of the year the results will be analysed by a group of leading evolutionary biologists, co-ordinated by scientists from The Open University.

Scientists believe that climate change and predators may have caused the banded snail population to shift habitat and even change their appearance. Professor Jonathan Silvertown of The Open University explains: “Banded snails wear their genes on their backs. Their colours and banding patterns are marvellously varied – but the darker shell types are more common in woodland, where the background colour is brown, while in grass banded snails tend to be lighter-coloured, 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.”

There is also a geographical pattern in the colour of shells that may have changed in response to the warming of the climate over the last 30 years. “Darker shells used to be more common in the north than in the south. We think this was because darker shells warm up more quickly in sunlight, enabling the animals to be more active in cold places. We would like to find out whether this geographical pattern has changed as the climate has warmed,” said Jonathan.

Everything you need to know to start snail hunting can be found at There are full instructions on how to do a snail hunt, a recording sheet on which to log findings, and a guide on how to identify banded snails. In addition, there is an instructional video illustrating snail hunting, a podcast on the project from Jimmy Doherty and some fun colouring sheets for younger snail hunters.

Professor Silvertown added: “The Evolution Megalab brings science to life and is a great way for families to explore evolution at work in their own garden or local park. It shows how good science can also be good fun!”

The Evolution MegaLab project is supported by The Royal Society and British Council. The project team will be exhibiting at this summer’s Royal Society exhibition in the first week of July.

For more information visit:

Editor’s Notes
The Open University’s Darwin Celebrations
The Open University is a proud partner in Darwin200, a national programme of events celebrating Charles Darwin’s life, his ideas and their impact around his 200th birthday on 12 February 2009.

Courses – Continue the learning journey
S170 ‘Darwin and Evolution’ – This course explains and explores the science of evolution for those with little or no scientific background. A podcast interview with the chair of the course, Dr Peter Skelton, is available at Other related courses include:
• S104 – Exploring Science
• S193 – Fossils and the history of life
• S366 – Evolution (Level 3, advanced course)

Web resources:
Find out more about Darwin and his theory, related courses and see yourself as you might have looked millions of years ago with our fun face-morph tool Devolve Me. You can also enter the prize draw for a copy of the new book 99% Ape: How evolution adds up.
The site has information on Darwin exhibitions and events throughout the UK, links to related YouTube video clips, online chat forums discussing the social impact of his work, OU Worldwide merchandise, OpenLearn free taster units, details of OU courses you can study and much more.

Book – 99% Ape: latest evidence explained by OU academics
In 99% Ape: How evolution adds up experts from The Open University explain this complex subject and guide the general reader through some of the evidence. Read the latest on Darwin’s finches and how new species evolve, uncover the flaws in ‘intelligent design’, find out what evolution has to say about psychology, the development of the human mind and morality and how we are still evolving. The book is edited and contributed to by Jonathan Silvertown, Professor of Ecology.

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