February 23rd 2015 – Justin Gerlach, independent researcher

Justin GerlachMy interests are in evolutionary biology and ecology, specifically how species adapt to their environments and how this may influence their conservation needs. My research has mainly focused on islands, as model systems. For 20 years I was involved in research and practical conservation in the Seychelles islands, working with a wide range of organisms: plants, bats, giant tortoises, frogs and, especially, invertebrates. My practical conservation work came to an end in 2011 when politics intervened. By that time I had developed a wide experience of working with different animals and plants, at a great range of scales, and had been thoroughly educated in the travails of conservation politics and the astonishingly vindictive world of tortoise taxonomy.
Since then I have returned to a research interest that I had neglected since 1994. In the early 1990s my doctoral research at Oxford University was on the ecology of the carnivorous snail Euglandina rosea. This predator had been used as a disastrous biological control agent for the giant African snail. Instead of controlling its target it had fed on rare Partula tree snails, causing the extinction of dozens of species. My research aimed to understand why the impacts of this species were so bad and what could be done to save the remaining Partula.
In 2013 I came back to Partula with new perspectives. I now have a major project to revise the horrendously confused taxonomy of the entire group. This is not just another of my obscure interests; Partula turn out to have a fascinating role in the development of biology – from the voyages of exploration, to early evolutionary theory and the start of genetics. In fact they were the focus of the first field study of evolution in 1916. This great history came to an end with the extinction of almost all the wild populations. Thousands of old preserved specimens still exist though and I am using these to understand the taxonomy and evolution of the snails and to investigate their diet and reproductive biology. This information is already leading to developments in the conservation of the few surviving species.
An additional occupier of my time is my role as focal point for the Terrestrial and Freshwater Invertebrate Red List Authority of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission. This is responsible for Red List assessments of most non-marine invertebrate species – at least a couple of million! Around 0.4% of species are assessed so we have a long way to go, but without a proper assessment of the status of invertebrates we can have no real idea of the state of the world.
My strong interest in synthesising different aspects of biology is an important part of what I aim to impart to the undergraduate students I supervise in evolution and ecology courses at Cambridge University. I am convinced that we only make real progress only through synthesis, collaboration and constant questioning of assumptions.
My biotweeps week will cover a range of these interests, as research progresses and interesting things come out. With diverse interests you never know what will turn up. I tweet (with very varying frequency) as @jstgerlach and the Twitter account for the Terrestrial Red List Authority is @tirla1. More on the Partula story can be found at http://islandbiodiversity.com/Partulapages.htm

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