"Shells were no longer just things pleasing to the senses and hailing from lands and seas I dreamed of visiting someday, but [they] revealed a context in which organisms live and evolve."
-Gary Vermeij, Nature: An Economic History
This is why I study snails. These (sometimes) under-rated invertebrates not only constitute the second most species-rich phylum of animals on the planet, but because they carry information about their lives in their shells AND fossilize well, they are time capsules of life history as well as their environment.
I am a graduate student in Integrative Biology (http://ib.berkeley.edu) at UC Berkeley and a member of WSM (http://biology.fullerton.edu/wsm). I study a family of mostly high latitude, cold-water whelks in the family Buccinidae. One aspect of my research involves determining the relationships of buccinid whelks to each other by analyzing their genes. My methods of collection and analysis for this project include “fish market science” and molecular phylogenetics.
My most reliable collection site for collecting buccinids was not the field, but the fish market— in Japan. While studying this family of large-ish gastropods, I found out that their global diversity peaks in North Pacific around Japan and the Sea of Japan. Accessibility of these snails would be a challenge, I thought. Many of the buccinids that I wanted to study live on the continental shelf in water more than 100m deep. Research cruises throughout the 1900s have surveyed the coastal waters of the North Pacific, particularly off of the coast of Alaska and one these collections (stored in alcohol) were available at the nearby California Academy of Sciences (http://www.calacademy.org). Alas, years in un-refrigerated alcohol can cause animal tissue to degrade to the point that DNA is difficult, or in my case, impossible to extract for study. To my great fortune, abundant, deep-water Japanese buccinids are accessible from Hokkaido to Kyushu, not in museum collections, but fresh in seafood markets. Buccinid flesh, called tsubu gai in Japanese, is relatively common in seafood markets. It is prepared as sashimi (raw) or cooked in a stew. Two genera, Buccinum and Neptunea, are most often harvested and are considered the best eating.
I went to Japan during the summer of 2008 and collected more than 25 buccinid individuals from seafood markets and generous collectors. Much of my funding was provided by the NSF’s EAPSI program, which I highly recommend to masters and Ph.D. students interested in working on practically any aspect of science in countries of the Pacific Rim and East Asia. I chronicled my experiences, which were rich in snails and in culture, in a blog (http://fossil-tsubu-gai.blogspot.com) as well as in the “Field Notes” section (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/science/fieldnotes/vendetti_0806.php) of the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) webpage. I presented my research results at the lively and student-supportive WSM meeting at Cal State, Fullerton in June 2009.
One outcome of my whelk research challenged some earlier classifications of genera in the Buccinidae— a noteworthy result in a taxonomically perplexing group, but not the most fascinating. What interested me most, and interests me in evolutionary biology in general, are the phylogenies, or family trees, that are produced from species information, in this case molecular data. Phylogenies are excellent evolutionary scaffolds on which one can build analyses of morphology, reproduction, life history strategies, and even behavior. This is one of the cornerstones of modern evolutionary biology, and is the next step in my research.
I’m looking forward to presenting the next phase of my research at the WSM meeting at San Diego State University in June 2010 (http://biology.fullerton.edu/wsm/conferences.html). By then my commute to the meeting will be a breeze, as I will be a postdoc in Pat Krug’s lab (http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/pkrug/lab) at Cal State Los Angeles.