Freshwater mussels are among the oldest living and second most diverse organisms on Earth with over 1,000 recognized species. Here in the eastern part of the U.S., we have more species of freshwater mussels than anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, freshwater mussels are one of the most rapidly declining animal groups in North America. Out of the 300 species and subspecies found on the continent, 70 (23%) have been federally listed as “Threatened” or “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. And, in the last century, over 30 species have become permanently extinct. So, why are populations declining so fast?
Freshwater mussels are filter feeders and process large volumes of the water they live in to obtain food. This means of survival also makes them highly susceptible to industrial and agricultural water pollution. Because they are constantly filtering water, the contaminants and pathogens that are present are absorbed into the mussel’s tissues. As such, mussels are good indicators of water quality and can greatly contribute to improving water quality by filtering algae, bacteria and organic matter from the water column.
Not only do freshwater mussels rely on water quality, they are dependent on fish and other aquatic organisms for reproductive success. In order for a freshwater mussel to complete the reproduction process, it must “infect” a host fish with its larvae. The method depends on the specie of mussel. Some species lure fish using highly modified and evolved appendages that mimic prey. When a fish goes into investigate the lures, the female mussel releases fertilized eggs that attach to the fish, becoming temporarily parasitic. Once the host fish is infected, it can transfer the mussel larvae upstream and into new areas of the river.
Both habitat loss from dam construction and the introduction of pesticides into the water supply has contributed to the decline of freshwater mussels. With approximately 300 mussel species in the U.S. alone, a critical component of restoring and revitalizing mussel populations is truly understanding their biology, which begins with the ability to properly differentiate each species and properly identify and catalog them. Princeton Hydro’s Senior Scientist Evan Kwityn, CLP and Aquatic Ecologist Jesse Smith recently completed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service‘s Fresh Water Mussel Identification Training at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia.
Through hands-on laboratory training, Evan and Jesse developed their freshwater mussel identification skills and their knowledge of freshwater mussel species biology. Course participants were tasked with mastering approximately 100 of the most common freshwater mussel species in the United States. They also learned about proper freshwater mussel collection labeling, the internal and external anatomy and meristics of a freshwater mussel, and distributional maps as an aid to freshwater mussel identification.
In a recently published press release, Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity was quoted as saying, “The health of freshwater mussels directly reflects river health, so protecting the places where these mussels live will help all of us who rely on clean water. This is especially important now, when we see growing threats to clean water from climate change, agriculture and other sources.”
To learn more about freshwater mussels, check out this video from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: