Musseling the Mussel Fork

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

The rivers and streams of North Missouri were often named for features prominent in the minds of early settlers. Places with names like Eagle Lake, Elk Creek, Turkey Creek, and Mussel Fork reflect the abundance of fish and wildlife. History doesn't reliably record the origin of the name of Mussel Fork, but it seems safe to assume that the banks of this meandering north Missouri stream once abounded with mussel shells.

River mussels have always been an important natural resource. Native peoples used mussels as a ready food source, and large amounts of eroding shell can be found at many archaeological sites. After the mussels were eaten, the shells were made into tools and jewelry or ground into temper for making pottery.

Early Missouri settlers also used mussels. The first buttons made from freshwater mussel shell probably date from the early 1800s. Large processing plants sprang up along the Mississippi River to provide pearl buttons for the clothing industry. During the 1890s hundreds of tons of shells were taken from the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers and their many tributaries.

Even today freshwater mussels have commercial value. Tons of shell are exported annually, mostly to Japan for the cultured pearl industry. Nearly all cultured pearls are started by surgically implanting a smooth sphere ground from a mussel shell collected from the rivers and lakes of the Mississippi River basin.

The oyster responds to this "irritant" by depositing a thin layer of mother of pearl around the implanted shell, which is called the nucleus. After several months, the oyster is retrieved and the cultured pearl is removed. Mussels may no longer be on the menu of many Missourians, but they are commonly eaten by many species of Missouri wildlife. Raccoons, otters, waterfowl, muskrats and some fish eat mussels they retrieve from the bottom of Missouri streams.

Mussels don't get a lot of attention because they don't appear to be doing anything. A mussel hard at work looks pretty much like a mussel at rest. But the mussels' importance to our stream fauna has everything to do with its sedentary lifestyle and quiet feeding habits.

Mussels are filter feeders, pulling water into their body chambers with one siphon and forcing it out the other siphon. All the while they extract small particles of organic matter and microscopic animals from the water. For the most part, mussels sit in the bottom of the stream filtering water. One mussel cleans

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