The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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July 25, 2013

VIDEO: In Missouri and Kansas rivers, species of mussels are disappearing

The creature known as H086 is so inconspicuous that she might have been mistaken for a rock on the bottom of Missouri’s Silver Fork River.

But she was discovered, transported to a science lab behind doors marked “restricted access” and put into refrigeration. She, along with dozens of others of her kind, is being closely monitored.

Their future is at stake.

A member of the freshwater mussel family, H086 is known as a fatmucket. She has many cousins — there are 300 species in North America, which has the highest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world. The rivers and streams of Missouri have historically had some of the largest populations of many kinds.

Incredibly, H086 can produce several million offspring in a year. Had she been left at the bottom of the river, few of them would have survived, making her among the country’s most imperiled native species. In a lab, her odds improve.

According to the Nature Conservancy, 70 percent of the mussels in North America have become extinct, compared with 16.5 percent of mammal species and 14.6 percent of bird species. In the Midwest, more than half of the 78 known species have been classified as federally endangered, threatened or in a state of concern.

But because they live at the bottom of waterways — far from sight of canoeists, anglers and passers-by — their critical role in the environment and the economy almost always is overlooked, researchers say.

“They are a hidden treasure,” said Bryan Simmons, a biologist and scuba diver with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based at Missouri State University in Springfield.

Simmons, 42, has spent 20 years, and plans to spend many more, on not just the study of mussels, but on ensuring that their populations are healthy and robust in the future.

He grows animated when he holds H086, a plain, algae-covered specimen, and describes her intricate reproductive cycle, the many variables that are almost certain to end the life of most of her offspring, and the reason the public should be concerned for her survival.

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