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Nyanza Project Faculty



Dr. Ellinor Michel

Natural History Museum
Department of Zoology
London, UK

Benthic ecology of Lake Tanganyika, gastropod ecology, controls on species distribution in nearshore habitats and evolution

Research Interests

As a biologist, I have been drawn to questions about the origin and maintenance of diversity for living organisms, which seem to be some the crux questions of existence. During my undergraduate years in biology at the University of Chicago, I had my first encounters with paleontology and the perspective of deep time in the history of life. I felt like I had a small epiphany when I realized that if I studied molluscs, with their coiling shells, that are not only beautiful objects to look at, but also fossilized records of individual growth events, I could combine a paleo- and neo-perspective on evolutionary processes.

The molluscan fossil record is one of the few places where we can simultaneously study developmental, population and long-term historical processes in a single group of organisms. I enjoyed my years working in a population genetics lab, but I was really moved by my field experiences in both geology and ecology classes. Thus, I was primed and ready when an opportunity arose to do PhD research at the University of Arizona on a little-known group of gastropods in Lake Tanganyika. Although this group did not have the fossil record I had hoped to use, it was an unparalleled analog to some important fossil assemblages from another African lake, Turkana, that had been at the center of a raging controversy on the mechanisms of evolution. Clearly, if I could delineate how evolution, specifically the formation of new species, had occurred in the Tanganyikan gastropods, I would be in a strong position to interpret evolution in other gastropods as well, and this could be used as a model system for understanding evolution as a whole.

Again, Eureka! Using morphometrics, anatomy, gentics, ecology, and biogeography, I set about testing hypotheses of speciation for Tanganyikan gastropods.This work has developed into a full-fledged research program, with my recent work (during an NSF postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan and currently at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands) focused on molecular systematics of Tanganyikan gastropods. Through population and species level analyses of the "Lavigeria" radiation and through collaboration with Dr. Kelly West, I have been devoted to determining the critical forces in the evolution of gastropods in rift lakes. I have also done research in Lake Baikal in Siberia (Russia) and hope to work in Lakes Malawi (Africa) and Ohrid (Balkans) in the future.


Although my research has focused on molluscs, I am interested in comparative studies of evolutionary patterns and processes in other organisms as well. For example, I have had a long-standing interest in the role of behavior in evolution and ecology, and I encourage students to undertake studies of the cichlid fishes in Lake Tanganyika. I am also committed to incorporating a conservation perspective in our research, and I expect all students to leave the course with a familiarity of the basic problems and potential solutions for this ecosystem.

If you participate in the Nyanza Project, I will make sure that you have the opportunity to help determine ecological parameters for a range of endemic Tanganyikan taxa. We will document local habitat limitations, trophic specializations, and reproductive and growth parameters. We will also have exercises that emphasize a more evolutionary perspective where you will learn basic tools of genetics, morphological description, and phylogeny reconstruction for several exemplar taxa. Ultimately, I expect you, as an REU student, to be able to construct testable hypotheses about biological processes in Lake Tanganyika, and to do basic research on you own or in small groups that would begin to answer the questions you've posed. Ideally, your independent project might grow to be the basis of a final thesis or publication with the guidance of your research mentor at your home institution.

My goal as a teacher is to bring several points home to my students. 1) Critical thinking is the root of scientific understanding. It helps us comprehend the material at hand, but more importantly, it is an analytical tool for exploring the world. To this end, we will read and discuss research papers on the biology of Lake Tanganyika and other regions that provide interesting comparisons. There is no substitute for hands-on experience in the field or laboratory. This is where we develop an intuitive sense of the natural system, and it is how we fuel our scientific curiosity. 2) Training improves observational skills. We will spend as much time in or on the Lake as possible, snorkeling and observing or collecting samples for analysis back in the lab. 3) Communication of scientific ideas in writing, drawing, or orally is a tool that helps us focus our thinking. In this course, you will write brief paper critiques, keep a detailed notebook with drawings, comments, and ideas, and you will wrap up the course with a presentation of your project. Science is fun - that's why we do it! There is an initial investment of intellectual energy, but this gives us rich returns in our sense of the complexity and beauty of the natural world. As a participant in the Nyanza Project, I hope you will leave remembering this as one of the best experiences of your education.


I have a BA from the University of Chicago, and a MSc and PhD from the University of Arizona.


Although biology provides its own rewards, it's not the only thing I do for fun. I am a fairly avid Scuba diver, I like to hike, travel, read, row, and ride my motorcycle.

Contact Information

Dr. Ellinor Michel
The Natural History Museum
Department of Zoology
Cromwell Road, SW7 5BD
London, UK



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