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Snails helping scientists slither back in time

Researchers from The University of Nottingham want the public to get involved in a project which could tell us how our ancestors came to Britain and Ireland. Experts from the School of Biology need people living in Ireland and Scotland to get involved in collecting snails.

By studying the genetic make-up of these creatures — which are often targeted as garden pests — scientists can trace their origins and find out how they colonised our islands. This in turn could shed light on where our ancestors originally came from, because snails may have arrived by hitching a ride with people.

By using a combination of genetic techniques and fossils, researchers at The University of Nottingham already know that snails arrived in the mainland of Britain around 10,000 years ago. Now they want the public to help in the collection of snails from specific locations which have a special human and archaeological interest.

Dr Angus Davison from The School of Biology says snails could be important in helping us trace our past. “Snails are normally considered a bit of a menace for bedding plants and shrubs, but we are hoping to turn people’s knowledge of them into a more useful purpose. Although people have moved around a lot, snails move so slowly that descendents of the original snails should still be the same place. We can use information from them to help understand where the people came from.”

A lot of questions remain unanswered about some of the plants and animals of Ireland and the Scottish Islands. Many are clearly distinct from the equivalent organisms in England and Wales and it is not clear how they got there. Using genetics to trace the origins of snails suggests that one species of snail in Ireland came from the North of Spain, meaning that the very first settlers of Ireland were “Spanish”. In Scotland a Viking link could be strengthened.

Scientists want snails from many areas, but would particularly like them from some specific sites: In Ireland: Co. Mayo (Swinford, near Knock) and Dublin (Newlands Cross). In Scotland: Skye, the Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney.

Dr Davison is asking anyone prepared to help collect snails to contact him for an information pack.

Emma Thorne | alfa
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