Field Operative David Winter at Real Scientists

“Slugs and snails, and puppy dogs’ tails” – these and the 95% of animals species that are invertebrates (well, except for the puppy tails) – are the critters that preoccupy this week’s Real Scientists curator,  David Winter/@TheAtavism. He’s an evolutionary geneticist who spends time fossicking about in the leaf litter of New Zealand’s forests, combining field work and post-doctoral research with blogging at The Atavism and occasionally sticking his neck out for science, for example, here and here.

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So how did David end up in science?

” I think, ultimately, I just want to know stuff. When I was a kid I used to read science encyclopedias for fun, and even remember building my own pitfall (insect) traps. At high school I was mad into chemistry, even spending some of lunch times running my own experiments (thanks to a supportitive teacher).”

Chemistry experiments at lunch time? Hard. Core.  David went on study genetics at University and eventually a PhD at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.  In choosing evolutionary genetics, instead of medical research, David wanted to “answer old questions with new tools,” using molecular biology to answer age-old biological questions like where does a species begin and end? Where do species come from? How does evolutionary change happen? David gets the best of both worlds – the field and the laboratory.

David’s interests in invertebrates extend from snails and peripatus to placazoans, spiders and harvestmen [Ed.: sorry guys I am not linking to that], to vertebrates like kiwis, the awfully cute reptile tuatara and bellbirds.

So what research would he would like to do, if money and time were no object?

New Zealand has the most diverse land snail fauna in the world. There are around known 900 species on our islands (and probably hundreds
more waiting to be discovered) and, shamefully, we know very little about them. I’d like to start fixing that.  In particular, I’d like to reconstruct the evolutionary history of snails using genetic data. Because us lowly land snail geneticists have so few resources available to us, it would require part of a run on one of these modern sequencing machines. If I could get a grant to cover that I reckon we’d create a useful resource for land snail genetics in general, and
make a real start on getting to grips with the diversity of our own species.

” Getting to grips with the diversity of our own species.” There’s the key. Snails could be another model organism, waiting in the wings, to teach us more about speciation.

Apart from snail and placazoan hunting, David plays soccer, brews beer and cycles up the sides of eroded volcano cones for fun. In addition to his blog, David is also published in the anthology, Best Science Writing Online.

This week, we look forward to David  sharing some of his research and writing, especially some of the finds on his recent field trip to Hauturu/Little Barrier Island.  Got any queries about snails and New Zeland’s unique flora and fauna? Ask David.

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