Biologists say mussel population is healthy despite heat wave

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NEW MADRID, Mo. -- Biologists hit the water on Friday (July 6) to search for mussels in drainage ditches in Pemiscot and New Madrid counties. According to AJ Hendershott, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Outreach and Education supervisor, the group wasn’t just trying to beat the triple digit heat.

“The water temperatures were above human body temperature, which means the aquatic environment is tough to live in right now,” Hendershott said. “Especially considering mussels and other aquatic critters endure the heat of the water on a constant basis.”

Freshwater mussels and snails are members of the phylum Mollusca, invertebrate animals with a soft body that is enclosed wholly or in part in a mantel and a shell. There are nearly 300 species of freshwater mussels in North America, with most of these species in the eastern and midwestern United States. This mussel diversity has caused some biologists to call the U.S. "the rain forest of freshwater mussels."

Hendershott and other biologists searched the drainage ditches, sometimes on hands and knees, to collect mussels from the bottoms of drainage ditches near the towns of New Madrid, Portageville, Lillbourn and Mathews. They took note of the diversity of various mussel species they found, where they were collected from, site conditions and then quickly returned them to their original location.

The soil in the area is sandy, with some sediment, according to Hendershott, making the wet ditches prime locations for mussels to thrive. However, record temperatures and limited shade in these areas impact the water for mussels, fish and other aquatic organisms.

“Mussels are indicators of water quality,” Hendershott said. “If the mussels are doing well, that’s a good indicator for our water quality as well.”

Hendershott said mussels are like “canaries in a mine” as they filter their food from the water they live in. If the water quality suffers, it will show in the mussel population. But mussels are also good for less serious activities, he said.

“Mussels are fun to use in nature and science lessons for children, because their names can be very silly,” Hendershott said. Some of the mussel species the group found Friday include names such as: monkey face, pistol grip, pimple-back, pig toe, three-ridge, bluefer, fawn’s foot, deer toe and heel splitter.

“Folks had fun calling these names out as they were found,” Hendershott said.

Overall, Hendershott said the mussel population was found to be diverse and healthy, despite the recent heat wave in southeast Missouri. This is great news, considering nearly two-thirds of Missouri's mussel species are of conservation concern, according to the MDC. Since most mussels stay in a small area their entire lives, they need stable living conditions. Pollution from herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, mining waste and residential and livestock sewage kill mussels and other aquatic life.

More information about mussels in Missouri can be found online at