Press release from April 27, 2011
Evolution in the back yard
Census of 750,000 banded snails leads to surprising results
Thousands of members of the public across Europe have taken part in one of the largest evolutionary studies ever, by observing banded snails in their gardens and open public spaces. More than 6,000 people in 15 European countries took part in the Open University’s citizen science project between April and October 2009.
The project, Evolution MegaLab, is an online mass public experiment aimed at bringing Darwinian theory to life. It was launched in April 2009 to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. People were invited to report their sightings of banded snails to the MegaLab project via a website at www.evolutionmegalab.org , and they received personalised interpretations of their observations in their own language.
Supported by the Royal Society and the British Council, the project team digitised more than 8,000 historical samples from the British Isles and continental Europe. More than 7,600 new observations were made in 2009. The aim of the research was to find out whether the creatures have evolved in the past 40 years in response to known changes in temperature. It involved comparing samples collected by the general public with data collected in the 1960s and 70s. The results have just been published in the latest issue of the scientific journal PLoS ONE.
The expectation was that snail shells would have become lighter, as protection from overheating in sunlight. This was indeed the case, but only in sand dunes, where it is harder for the snails to seek shelter from the heat of the sun. The evolutionary change that was seen everywhere, however, was an unexpected increase in the percentage of snails with a single black spiral band around the shell. Exactly what caused the change in bandedness is still a mystery. It does not appear to be related to climate change and researchers suspect it may be due to a decrease in bird predation or some small-scale environmental change. But exactly what has gone on, is food for further thought.
Professor Jonathan Silvertown, who devised the Evolution MegaLab, said: "This is one of the largest evolutionary studies ever undertaken. Through mass observation we wanted to give the general public, including families and school children, the opportunity to do real science and to experience the fun and excitement of discovery for themselves. Finding unexpected results is what science is all about." The article, written by Professor Silvertown in collaboration with authors from the project’s partner institutions, says: "The findings show the power of getting lots of people to help out. These data set a benchmark for future studies of evolutionary change."
Evolution MegaLab is one of a number of citizen science projects being run by the Open University. In 2009, the OU launched Creative Climate which is a global diary to show how human beings respond to climate change. It invites members of the public to post a diary and already the project has receive hundreds of diary entries from across the world.
More recently the OU has created iSpot (ispot.org.uk) -- an award-winning social network for natural history where people can share their observations of wildlife and get help identifying what they have seen. Ten thousand people have joined to date and made over 43,000 observations of more than 4,500 species.
On publication, the paper will be available online at
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Open University - Creative Climate
PLoS ONE is an open access peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science since 2006. It covers primary research from any discipline within science and medicine.
The Open University (OU) is the largest higher education institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 1.7 million students and
has more than 264,000 current students, including more than 19,000 overseas, learning in their own time using course materials, online activities and content, web-based forums and tutorials and through tutor
groups and residential schools.
The OU has been highly rated for teaching quality, and has been at the top of student satisfaction rankings in the National Student Survey since it was introduced in 2005. 70% of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and three out of four FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.
The OU supports a vibrant research portfolio and in the UK's latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), the University climbed 23 places to 43rd, securing a place in the UK's top 50 higher education institutions.
Regarded as Britain’s major e-learning institution, the OU is a world leader in developing technology to increase access to education on a global scale. Its vast ‘open content portfolio’ includes free study units on OpenLearn, which has had more than 11 million unique visitors, and materials on iTunes U, which has recorded over 32 million downloads. The OU has a 40 year partnership with the BBC which has moved from late-night lectures in the 1970s to prime-time programmes such as Life, Bang Goes the Theory, James May’s Big Ideas, Can Gerry Robinson Save Dementia Care Homes?, Saving Britain’s Past and The Money Programme.