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Long-forgotten samples may help save species

ves proteins. The plan was for Burch and a collaborator in Hawaii to use the freeze-dried material for a detailed study of evolutionary relationships in the famous Tahitian snails. But the collaborator died before the research could be done, and Burch became absorbed in other projects, leaving the vials of freeze-dried snails in three wooden trays in a freezer at the U-M Museum of Zoology.

If not for a chance conversation with Burch, Ó Foighil, who came to the University in 1995, might never have known about the vials and their conservation potential. "He had told me from time to time that he'd been in Tahiti, and I didn't think too much about it," said Ó Foighil, "but then just about a year ago he mentioned all the stuff in the freezer, and I realized what a valuable resource we have. We have at hand, in freeze-dried form, a comprehensive sampling of the Tahitian land snail fauna from a point in time five years prior to the devastating introduction of the rosy wolf snail."

By extracting, amplifying and analyzing DNA from the samples, as well as from snails that die naturally in the zoo collections, Ó Foighil and colleagues can construct evolutionary trees. Some of the information they'll obtain will be mainly of academic interest---settling such questions as whether the snails diversified into separate species before or after arriving in Tahiti from neighboring islands---but some will have practical uses. For example, the information may help conservationists figure out which captive snail populations are best to reintroduce to the wild and which of the remaining wild populations they should focus future conservation efforts on.

"The story here, in terms of conservation biology, is a horror story, but it's not all black because some of these snails can be saved," said Ó Foighil, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a curator at the museum. "And by being able to
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Contact: Nancy Ross Flanigan
rossflan@umich.edu
734-647-1853
University of Michigan
7-Apr-2004


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