Saving Ohio’s Mussels

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A fanshell mussel found in the Ohio River.(Photo: USFWS Endangered Species (Flickr))
A fanshell mussel found in the Ohio River.(Photo: USFWS Endangered Species (Flickr))

They’re among some of Ohio’s most humble creatures. Over the past few hundred years, several species of freshwater mussels have disappeared from state waters. But as WOSU’s Sam Hendren reports, a research facility in suburban Columbus is working on ways to bolster Ohio’s mussel population.

 

Freshwater mussels can be hard to find because they burrow into riverbeds and streambeds.  But if you walk the banks of Ohio’s waterways sometimes you’ll find the shells of mussels.  Anthony Sasson is a conservation manager for the Nature Conservancy in Ohio.

 

“Well there’s many species of mussels in Ohio, Sasson says. “The Scioto River system, the whole watershed has quite a few muscles and it’s actually pretty good habitat for mussels in Ohio; we have a lot of the right chemistry in the water for mussels to grow and survive.”

 

But some species of freshwater mussels have been decimated by loss of habitat and by pollution.  John Navarro works for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife.

“It takes quite a long time for them to reach adult size,” Navarro says.  “So if you have an event where a chemical release or something happens in a stream and you wipe out the mussels, you’re going to see that effect for a long period of time.  So like the canary in the coal mine you can use mussels as an indicator of water quality.”

 

Unfortunately there are several species of freshwater mussels that are in danger of extinction.

 

“Fresh Water Mussels are the most imperiled animals in North America based upon US Fish and Wildlife’s reckoning.”

 

That’s Tom Watters, a professor at Ohio State University and a freshwater mussel expert.  He says that about two dozen species have already become extinct in North America.

 

“We’re losing species in the headwaters due to runoff from construction sites, agriculture, just a little bit of everything, habitat destruction, water quality problems.  But probably because of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act we may have turned a corner. There seem to be creeks and rivers that seem to be rebounding and recovering,” Watters says.

 

One organization that’s helping to repopulate streams and rivers in Ohio is the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.  The Zoo’s Fresh Water Muscle Conservation Lab sits on the west bank of the Scioto River just upstream from the O’Shaughnessy Dam. OSU Professor Tom Watters is science director at the facility.

 

“The zoo has always had a very strong interest in conservation not with just what we call the charismatic mega-fauna; the big, cuddly majestic type of animals but things down to hellbenders and mussels and snakes; things that most people would not consider to be high priority items but they’re just in as much need of conservation as anything else,” Watters says.

 

Watters says that mussels have been around a long time; when the Triassic’s dinosaurs were tramping around in ancient streams they were stepping on mussels that are essentially the same mussels we have today.

 

“We would like to help turn these animals around and try to get as many species back in the state that used to be here,” Watters says. “And we’d like to do a lot of basic research; there’s a lot that we don’t know about these animals.  They have a very fascinating life history.”

 

And they’re good environmentally.  Take a mussel and put in a pail of turbid water, and according to the professor, the water will be clear the next day because mussels filter contaminants.  The conservation facility is in part a nursery where a wide range of mussels are cared for.

 

“At any one time we’ll have about a thousand individuals of about 50 different species or types of mussels,” Watters says. “Some of them are quite small, some of them get as big as a dinner plate; they can weigh several pounds.  So they come in all different shapes and sizes, they’re really fascinating animals, some of them live to be 30, 40, 50, 60 years old, so they’re very long lived, merrily filtering water away.”

 

The mussel research facility was founded ten years ago by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department and The Wilds.

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