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Volume 51

The Evolution Megalab: science (and snails) for all.

Robert Cameron

Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 4TN.

Members may already be aware that the Open University is staging an "Evolution Megalab", a scheme to increase public awareness of evolution, as a contribution to Darwin Year (2009). They have chosen the famous colour and banding polymorphism of the European land snails Cepaea hortensis and C. nemoralis (Fig 1) as the object of study, and the scheme involves participants from all the European countries in which the species occur. It has received support from the Royal Society and from the British Council, and there was a meeting of national organisers and educators on May 28th. Participants came from Latvia to Austria and Ireland, and from Poland and Hungary through to Spain. The scheme will go "public" with a launch at the beginning of the active season (for the snails!) next year, probably in April. Council has agreed to endorse the project, and we hope that many members and their students will participate.

  Participants will be invited to submit records online, detailing samples they have made, including the numbers of each colour and banding morph found. They will get feedback on the composition of other nearby samples, and, where possible, an analysis of how their records compare. There is already an interactive website (in several languages) up and running as a test version with lots of instructions and background material (for example, Fig 2). You can access it at , but you will need to register (free) before you can enter records. Try it out; we are anxious to get feedback before the final version is released. It includes background information for teachers, and guides to identification and the scoring of morphs.

  The aim of the project is to get as many records as possible from across the range, and to analyse the patterns of variation in morph frequency and linkage disequilibria. We know that there are some broad geographical patterns (with many local exceptions!), and there is often variation with habitat too. Jones, Leith and Rawlings (1977) and Cook (1998) give general reviews, and there will be leads to other papers on the website in due course.

 Over the course of the last two years a few of us have been entering historic records; there are around 8000 site records for Great Britain (some with both species). The earliest are records made by A.E. Boycott in Herefordshire in 1893. We have entered about 1600 records for other countries (including the whole of Ireland), but there will be many more as local organisers enter data for their own countries. We know that there are at least 2000 historic records from Germany. I have been told authoritatively that this is the largest genetic database after that for our own species, Homo sapiens. We shall use this to see if there have been changes over time. Pilot studies have already shown some changes related to climate, and also that there have been many local alterations of ranges.

  The Open University team is led by Professor Jonathan Silvertown, with the assistance of people like Laurence Cook, Steve Jones, Mark Beaumont and me, who have studied Cepaea for many years. While the broad-scale analyses will be done by members of the team (including the many national organisers), there is scope for analyses at all scales down to the very local. Where there are local groups who want to analyse and publish their own data, or to use output for local events and recording schemes, all possible help will be given. Similarly, background data will be available for student projects or whole-class activities. There are some areas with very good historic data, where resurveys might show dramatic changes. The website allows you to see what historic records exist near you, and gives details of their locations and the composition of the samples..

  We have already agreed that all the British and Irish species records will be entered in the Conchological Society's Non-marine Recording Scheme. The whole database will be preserved and copied for future use.

  I will be holding some practical workshop sessions for those interested at the Conchological Society's long indoor meeting in the Natural History Museum in London on January 31, and I will give a more formal talk at their recording meeting on April 18.  I am happy to hold other events any time from October onwards.


Cook LM. 1998. A two-stage model for Cepaea polymorphism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, B  353: 1577-1593.

Jones JS, Leith BH, Rawlings P. 1977. Polymorphism in Cepaea: a problem with too many solutions? Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 8: 109-143.