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 www.evolutionmegalab.org. 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 www.evolutionmegalab.org. 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: www.evolutionmegalab.org
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