Missouri's Freshwater Mussels

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

two to four years, a lustrous, "cultured" pearl is removed from the oyster. Today, the cultured pearl industry is a multimillion dollar business.

Freshwater mussels are ecologically important. Mussels are eaten by raccoons, mink, otters, waterfowl and fish. Muskrats may subsist on freshwater mussels during winter months, leaving behind piles of shells or "middens" on stream banks--remnants of a tasty dinner.

Mussels are biological indicators of water quality because they are long-lived and relatively immobile, and they accumulate contaminants present in water and sediment that can be scientifically analyzed. They are nature's "vacuum cleaners," filtering and cleansing polluted waters.

Mussel hunt

Snorkeling and scuba diving are the most common methods used to search for live freshwater mussels. Water scoping is another method used when the water is cold or polluted.

With your face or bucket close to the stream bottom, familiarize yourself with your aquatic surroundings. Watch for the slightest movements. Perhaps you'll see a puff of sand or silt. Where did it come from? Look closer. If it's a freshwater mussel, the first thing you'll notice are the two siphons extending from between the shell valves. If you reach out and touch it, a live mussel will quickly clamp shut. They are sensitive to shadows and will react as if you are a predator about to eat them.

You can pick up a live mussel without hurting it if you treat it with care. They are so interesting and beautiful, it's hard to resist. Note its shell patterns and long foot as you pull the mussel from the stream bottom. What color is it? The part of the shell where the foot is can be thought of as the "head" (anterior) end.

Actually, mussels do not have a head. Instead, they have a long muscular foot that protrudes from their protective house-of-shell. The mussel walks through the substrate with its foot. The siphons are located at the rear (posterior) end and are sometimes visible sticking out of the substrate.

When replacing the mussel, rebury the foot end. If you accidentally rebury the siphon end, instead, you could suffocate the mussel. If unsure, leave the mussel close by in the same habitat, on its side, behind a boulder or in quiet water and let it rebury itself. If left unburied in swift current, it can easily be swept away to unfavorable habitat. Be sure to always put mussels back where you found them.

A number of Missouri's freshwater mussels

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