Certain vulnerable species have become living symbols of conservation. Monarch butterflies grab the public eye with their brilliant colours, and beloved megafauna like the polar bear have rallied environmental support for decades. But the spotlight that shines on imperilled wildlife is not shared equally. Many lesser-known organisms are threatened by human activity and similarly deserving associated with support. One such group is the particular unionids, or freshwater mussels.

Mussels are the unsung heroes of the freshwater world. These shy bivalves might not impress at first glance. They often go unnoticed, spending their lives hidden from sight in the bottoms of lakes, rivers, plus streams. Yet do not really be fooled by their unassuming nature – fresh water mussels are usually fascinating animals with their own unique charisma. They have wonderfully complex life cycles and play vital roles in maintaining healthy freshwater ecosystems.  

Many species’ common names highlight their diverse colours plus shapes. A single river may be home to elktoes, three-horn wartybacks, pink heelsplitters, and wavy-rayed lampmussels. Lucky waders may even stumble across the aptly-named Appalachian monkeyface mussel , a critically endangered species. With over 890 varieties worldwide , mussels are one of the most varied groups associated with animals in the world. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most imperilled.    

Why Do Freshwater Mussels Matter?

Mussels are ecosystem engineers, working around the clock in order to remove organic material plus impurities from the water. It is a job that never stops. Embedded in the sediment, mussels continuously syphon bacteria, algae, and excess nutrients as they feed and breathe. With each mussel filtering around 10 gallons (37. 8 litres) per day , it is also a job they do quite well. Large populations possess powerful impacts on water quality: one study found that in a 300 mile (approximately 480 kilometre) stretch of the Mississippi River, mussels filter 14 billion gallons (53 billion litres) of drinking water each day .  

In an act of aquatic alchemy, mussels transform what they syphon into food with regard to other organisms. They make essential contributions to nutrient cycling simply by breaking down compounds and excreting them as material that is more readily bio-assimilated. Where mussels go, others follow. Researchers in the particular UK discovered that greater mussel abundance predicted higher diversity among other freshwater organisms .

freshwater mussels

Freshwater mussels like the white heelsplitter (Lasmigona complanata, left) plus mapleleaf mussel (Quadrula quadrula, right) keep water clean and play essential roles inside healthy environments. Photo by Logan Rance.

Beth Hollinden, a malacologist for a North American environmental consulting firm, discussed in an interview how mussels furthermore function as biological indicators. “Mussels are like a canary in the coal mine, ” she explained. “If you’ve got a big mussel die off, you can tell pretty much immediately that will something is wrong and try to address that problem. ” 

Sudden mussel declines may point to issues like agricultural runoff or even sedimentation. By monitoring mussel populations, researchers can simultaneously monitor the health of the surrounding ecosystem. Lately, these monitoring efforts reveal that mussels are struggling: in North America alone, populations have declined nearly 70% .  

A Bizarre and Brilliant Reproductive Strategy       

Even within a world of marsupial frogs and mate-eating mantises, mussels’ fascinating (and somewhat diabolical) reproductive methods set them apart. After a female syphons the male’s sperm from the open water, her eggs develop internally into microscopic larvae called glochidia . When it is time to leave mom behind, glochidia hitch a ride to a new location by attaching to the gills of an unsuspecting host fish. Glochidia remain attached regarding several weeks, tapping in to nutrients present in their own host’s gill tissue. They eventually drop off to the particular sediment where they continue growing directly into adults.

Inside order to help glochidia make the leap from mom to host, mussels have got developed some creative methods for luring seafood close. In some species, a female attracts hosts by dangling part associated with her mantle – the tissue that encloses the particular internal organs –  that will resembles the minnow or crayfish. Others bundle glochidia into a string of worm-like mucus packets plus release the line into the water. When a prospective sponsor bites the female’s lure, glochidia are released and latch on to the fish’s gills. Freshwater mussels in the particular genus Epioblasma take a good even a lot more shells-on approach: a lady uses her exposed body in order to lure a fish close, then clamps on to its head plus blasts it with a cloud of glochidia. When the deed is done, she releases the newly-infested web host.  

Up the Creek: Why Mussels are Threatened

While pawning off parental duties to fish is an incredible feat of evolution, this strategy makes mussels particularly susceptible to environmental change.  

“One of the biggest threats for mussels today is habitat fragmentation in the particular form associated with impoundments and dams, ” said Hollinden. “This separates fish populations. If fish can’t travel up and down the stream a person end up with isolated populations, plus mussels can’t disperse. ” 

As more dams are constructed to meet growing demands intended for electricity, mussels and the seafood who carry them face a difficult road ahead. Even protected watersheds are at risk: one 2020 study found that 1, 200 dams existed inside global protected areas, along with 509 more planned to get future construction.  

freshwater mussels

A dead mussel sits just downstream from a construction site along Ohio’s Olentangy River. Picture by Logan Rance.  

Dams are not mussels’ only upstream battle. As human exercise floods waterways with heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), fertilisers, and industrial waste, water quality is plummeting at an unprecedented rate . Despite powerful filtration abilities, mussels have limits to what they can syphon. With fewer environmental buffers like wetlands to sequester pollutants plus minimise erosion, they are usually succumbing in order to poor drinking water quality and sedimentation. Today, 45% of species worldwide are threatened with extinction or already extinct .    

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A Murky Future

Mussels are not only a good essential part of today’s ecosystems – they are also a window into the particular past. Scientists study the geochemical makeup of their shells to learn about previous environment conditions, plus have even used them to research climate as far back as the Miocene era . Despite their particular long standing place in healthful freshwater habitats, they now face an uncertain future.  

While mussels may not have the same assistance as other high-profile types, passionate researchers are working overtime to prevent all of them from disappearing for good. Some scientists are developing ways to grow mussels in labs and introduce them into restored habitats, with initial studies producing hopeful results . For malacologists like Hollinden, the fight for mussels is personal.

“Being able to contribute in whatever way to the particular preservation associated with this group of animals is very fulfilling, ” she shared. “By doing things like relocations you can actively make the difference within the life of that animal. ” 

Relocations are an important a part of protecting mussels from environmental disturbance. Feeling blindly along the bottoms of lakes plus rivers, experts collect mussels from areas at danger of being impacted by development (like in-water bridge construction) and move all of them to safer locations. Other work such as habitat restoration, monitoring, plus public outreach are important to mussel conservation. Groups like Xerces Society pertaining to Invertebrate Conservation partner along with researchers, tribes, and volunteers to restore mussel habitat and communicate the importance associated with mussels with the public.  

Despite the best efforts of mussel-loving conservationists, the particular freshwater mussel faces difficult odds. Each species lost is a huge blow to water quality plus biodiversity, leaving a hole in the ecosystem that will is impossible to fill. Educating the public about mussels and the particular services these people provide is essential to preserving their put in place the world. While these humble filterers bring tremendous value in order to freshwater habitats, mussels deserve protection simply for being mussels. With their wonderfully weird lifecycles and robust biodiversity, they are among the most unique animals inside the globe. Mussels are usually well worth protecting and have earned a place in the spotlight. Time will tell if we can keep that spotlight through going out meant for good.      

Featured image by   Logan Rance

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