Snail trail reveals ancient human migration

Credit: Lauren Holden
19 Jun 2013 17:00:00.000

Geneticists from The University of Nottingham have used snails to uncover evidence of an ancient human migration from the Pyrenean region of France to Ireland.

Dr Angus Davison, Reader in Evolutionary Genetics at the University, and PhD student Adele Grindon, found that snails in Ireland and the Pyrenees are genetically almost identical, despite being thousands of miles apart. And — as snails aren’t renowned for their speed — the simplest explanation is that snails hitched a ride with human migrants approximately 8,000 years ago.

The research is published in journal PLOS ONE on 19 June.

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From France to Ireland

Dr Davison said: “There is a very clear pattern, which is difficult to explain except by involving humans. If the snails naturally colonised Ireland, you would expect to find some of the same genetic type in other areas of Europe, especially Britain. We just don’t find them.

“There are records of Mesolithic or Stone Age humans eating snails in the Pyrenees, and perhaps even farming them. The highways of the past were rivers and the ocean — as the river that flanks the Pyrenees was an ancient trade route to the Atlantic, what we’re actually seeing might be the long lasting legacy of snails that hitched a ride, accidentally or perhaps as food, as humans travelled from the South of France to Ireland 8,000 years ago.

“The results tie in with what we know from human genetics about the human colonisation of Ireland — the people may have come from somewhere in southern Europe.”

The flora and fauna of Ireland

Despite being close geographically, Ireland is home to many plants and animals which aren’t found in Britain.

Dr Davison said: “You would think that anything that gets to Ireland would go through Britain, but it has been a longstanding mystery as to why Ireland is so different from Britain. For these snails, at least, the difference may be that they hitched a ride on a passing boat.”

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottinghamhas 42,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It was ‘one of the first to embrace a truly international approach to higher education’, according to the Sunday Times University Guide 2013. It is also one of the most popular universities among graduate employers, one of the world’s greenest universities, and winner of the Times Higher Education Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development’. It is ranked in the UK’s Top 10 and the World’s Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong and the QS World Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University aims to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for its research into global food security.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest ever fundraising campaign, will deliver the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Angus Davison, Reader in Evolutionary Genetics at The University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 823 0322 or

Fraser Wilson - Communications Officer

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 846 6691 Location: University Park

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