Ecologist Chris Hobbs was the recipient of a 2017 Collections & Research grant for graduate students in support of research in the Museum’s collections. The award is used toward travel and lodging expenses for a student to visit DMNH to study our world-class collections and library. Eligible students must be enrolled in a graduate degree-granting program and pursuing collections-based research leading to publication. Chris visited DMNH in July and attended the American Malacological Society annual meeting as well as the DMNH collections. As part of the grant, he wrote the following blog post about his research.
An ecologist in his natural habitat
I’ve been studying as a PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University in England for the past three years, working on my topic of interest: conservation ecology. This post is a bit of an insight into my field of research, one which has taken me around the world!
Segmentina nitida sample (around 4mm in diameter)
I’ve always had a keen interest in ecology, understanding our natural environment and what we can do to protect it. When I was given the chance to work on the endangered freshwater snail, Segmentina nitida (the Shining Ramshorn Snail), I jumped at the opportunity. This species has suffered around an 80% decline in population size in the last 100 years, caused by land use changing from grazing land for livestock to intensive arable farmland, as well as changes in water chemistry caused by fertilizer run-off.
I soon found that the path to conservation of a species is frequently littered with pitfalls and dead-ends, such as finding an almost identical species with the minutest of differences (with samples averaging the 5mm mark!), to a complete unwillingness of the species to breed in laboratory conditions, regardless of mood lighting and serenading. It has so far taken a lot of effort and determination to carry on, but ultimately has been completely worth it, as you develop a deeper understanding and new knowledge of the species.
Some attempts to set the mood for successful reproduction
My current research project is looking at shape changes of the Shining Ramshorn Snail throughout its main habitat, Europe. This currently involves exploring the many mosquito-ridden swamps, fragrant ditches, and remote ponds of Europe for hours on end to find samples from as many countries as possible, to get as full a picture of similarities and differences in shape of the different populations. However, there is only so much travelling, so many contacts to make, and sampling to be done. This is why museum collections are such a valuable resource to myself and other researchers. They give people access to samples from countries that would otherwise be impossible to get to, or simply don’t have the time to sample in.
Whilst applying to present at the American Malacological Society meeting in July, I was amazed to find out that Delaware Museum of Natural History actually had samples of Segmentina in their collection, and that they had some from regions and countries I’d been unable to find records or contacts in! I was awarded a research grant by DMNH to come and photograph the samples they had to add to my research. This allowed me to fill in gaps in my map of the shape of Segmentina throughout Europe. This allowed me to see if shape change was a gradual change through climate or location (East to West or North to South) or if there are stark differences between (and within) countries regardless of distance, indicating that there are local adaptions to habitat or water chemistry.
Sifting through the glacial ponds of Sweden hunting for tiny snails
If we can observe the trends of a species with regards to habitat, we can see the massive implications for the conservation of a species. If a population is completely different in shape to another, it is likely to be adapted to a different condition. If this is the case, there could be issues in using this population to reintroduce it to another country, or increase the numbers in an existing population. The new individuals could completely die out because of differences in water chemistry, or habitat composition, or cause damage to existing populations, especially if they are too genetically distinct to reproduce effectively. If we can find populations of similar shape and, through further analysis, are genetically similar, then we have a greater chance of implementing a successful conservation plan for a species.
A slightly more comfortable approach to fieldwork
Conservation ecology is a fascinating subject with incredible opportunities to explore the biology of a species, as well as explore the world, and there is an amazing amount of work that needs to go into it. Ultimately however, if we can manage to understand the species better, we have a greater chance to make a difference to it through successful conservation, and that makes it all worth it.