Restoring River Life: Making Mussels

Published on: Nov. 14, 2007

I just heard some good news (a pleasant change from what’s often gloom and doom) about keeping our waters healthy. Missouri scientists have figured out a way to grow mussels—to give them a fighting chance to survive as adults where they’re disappearing from our rivers and streams. So what, you say?

mussel researchA freshwater mussel is not an elephant or an elk—no majestic being striding across the countryside, no charismatic megafauna that gets people all worked up. It’s just a little shelled creature living quietly at the bottom of our waterways. Raccoons, muskrats and some fish eat them. The mussels, in turn, feed by filtering the water—cleaning out pollutants like bacteria and silt. They’re quiet cleaners, simple threads in the web of life.

Steve McMurray, a researcher for the Missouri Department of Conservation, is working with Dr. Chris Barnhart from Missouri State University and others from the Kansas City Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grow freshwater mussels in captivity.

I asked Steve why it matters. He said, “It excites me because it means we’re making great progress in our efforts to give mussels a fighting chance. This research means that we will be able to release larger and older mussels that might give them a better chance to survive in the stream, and be able to track their survival over the long term.”

Mussels apparently need all the help they can get. Of about 300 species in the United States, 70 percent are not doing well. Ten of Missouri’s 69 mussel species are listed as state endangered. Eight of those are also not doing well elsewhere.

Of course, there is only so much a mussel can do. What we do with the land and what drains into our waters is what’s going to ultimately keep our waters and the life in them healthy. But it’s good to know that if we hold up our end of the deal, the mussels may have a better chance to do theirs.

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