Thursday, August 20, 2015

Mussels in the news!

This summer there have been quite a few news reports about water quality in Minnesota rivers and lakes.  Here's a link to a great story about native mussels in the Mississippi River!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Find the Mussels: Video

Last week, the Snake River gave us quite the treat--clear(ish) water! We took the opportunity to capture a few mussels hanging out underwater.  Do you think you can find the mussels buried in the riverbed? Give it a try! 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fun Day! Let's shopping??

Our summer is almost over!! How did that happen? It went so fast. 

We finished our last push of field work this Tuesday, after a very successful trip back to the Snake River to aggregate some pocketbooks and heelsplitters. We greeted our old friends at Freddie's Restaurant, ate the continental breakfast at AmericInn one last time, upset a very tiny very fluffy white dog at the riverside, and found more leeches in two days than we had in the seven weeks preceding. We finally found the elusive heelsplitters in the shallow water and reeds by the white dog, instead of the deeper pools like we had expected. For the entirety of the summer, I don't think we ever successfully predicted where the mussels we wanted would be. Always keeping us on our toes--what mischievous creatures! (And for those of you that have seen the picture of us on the front page of the Macalester website, we do not agree with the claim that mussels are "unglamorous" creatures. Fascinating, beautiful, overlooked, complex, yes, but never unglamorous!)

The very definition of glamour

We returned to the lab on Wednesday, and because it was Kelly's last day (And the day before Brooke's birthday) we had a "fun day"! Which to us meant, after a delicious and enlightening lunch at Kelly's house where her children revealed all the family secrets, we drove to Target and did some personal grocery shopping. It's what everyone wishes they could do on their fun day at work but are too shy to say, obviously. We finished with a final stop at Nelson's, where we all raised a spoon in Dan's honor before eating approximately a gallon of ice cream each. Good day.

For our final two days, we have quite a lengthy to-do list, including more sediment, data analysis, poster-making, and cleaning out the garage and the beachful of sand in the truck. I'm looking forward to making sense of all the data we've collected and translating it so everyone can understand the important work we've been doing! We are planning on presenting our posters at the Macalester summer research poster session during family weekend, as well as at the St. Croix River Research Rendezvous and possibly the Minnesota State Fair, so check us out at all of these places if you can! We'd love to explain more about what we've accomplished this summer!

The whole crew on the Snake River
(photo credit Macalester Promotional Material)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Three Cheers for Public Water Access

Do you ever wonder how we actually get to our river sites? It's a legitimate question for sure, and the answer can actually get quite complicated.

According to the DNR, we may legally access Minnesota's lakes and rivers "if public land or a public road right­-of­-way borders the surface of the water or if you have permission to cross private land to reach the surface of the water" (DNR,

Bridge overlooking Chippewa River site
 Since nearly 100% of our mussel sites border road bridges that cross over the river, we are usually able to walk down the side of the bridge into the water, which can either be common river-entry points with beaten paths, or the complete opposite, sometimes involving a plethora of poison ivy and thistles to battle through to the water's edge. 

We do often knock on the nearby homes of the landowners that live next to the river to ask for permission though, just in case.
Farmland near Chippewa River site

Entry into Snake River site
In case you were also curious about mussel regulations, we are allowed to work with these cool living (and sometimes dead) organisms because we are granted authority under the Minnesota DNR in the form of a permit to handle them in these rivers. Even then, there are many rules to follow, such as careful avoidance of invasive species spreading, the care of endangered and threatened mussel species, and more!

 If you're super excited about our research and hoping to collect some of your own mussel shells, here's a heads up about the DNR's rules about that:
  • People with a fishing license and children younger than 16 may hand-pick or possess up to 24 whole shells or 48 half shells from dead mussels of species that are not endangered or threatened
  • Shell collection is allowed from May 16 through the last day in February
  •  You cannot take mussel shells from the St. Croix River
  •  You cannot possess zebra mussels
  •  Mussel shells cannot be bought or sold 


Happy Regulations!

 Photo Credits: photo 3, Macalester promotional material


Minnesotan Horror Story: Terrors of the Dark, Murky Waters

Minnesota has some beautiful rivers, and no two rivers are ever exactly the same.  There are often flowers blooming along the banks, trees shading the water, and picturesque homes and farms along the meandering waterways. Birds swoop over the water and sing, and dragonflies dart around happily while frogs hop away from your advances. 

Don't be fooled! This is more than a serene view. 

But when you're in the water, everything changes.  

There's a lot of suspended sediment (check out Brooke's post, "You look Mighty FINE with a 'Mudstache'" for more information) in the rivers we've been in, making visibility nonexistent. Once the water gets more than 3-4 feet deep, there isn't even sunlight filtering through the water, no longer making it appear light and warm and safe. It becomes dark. And cold.  You feel alone.  Anything could happen. 

Without vision, your other senses become heightened, but this really only makes things worse.  On the river bottoms, you can hear the clinking of gravel being swept downstream. But is it gravel? Is it actually catfish stalking you? Is it a snapping turtle warming up its snapper? Is it a serial killer chuckling in the depths, waiting for you to fall into a hole? On occasion, you find your vision actually does work, and you come face to face with a fish darting past your mask. 

Then there's your sense of touch.  To search for mussels, there are a couple of techniques--a sweeping motion like a windshield wiper or a more rummaging technique, like you're frantically playing a piano but doing so under the top layer of sediment. Either way, your hands seem to be magnetically attracted to half-buried objects that should not be there, like farm equipment, glass, your fellow project-mates' boots, or weird cloth bundles.  

For some reason, it is impossible to not let your mind go to the worst possible place--buried bodies, dismembered animal skeletons, or fecal matter. Around rocks, you undoubtedly picture gigantic, aggressive, ferocious crayfish ready to claim your fingers or monster fish that might swallow you whole. On top of it all, minnows like to satisfy their curiosity by lightly nibbling any exposed skin. It's a strange feeling. 

Our timed searches looking for the species richness and abundance at different sites take 20 minutes.  While finding mussels is absolutely the goal, survival is also a goal.  The best way to get through the time is to try and NOT think about any of the things above: what you're feeling (unless they're mussels), what you're hearing, and definitely not what you can't see.  Singing, daydreaming, and repeating "mussels! mussels! mussels!" are all great methods of coping.  

Despite all this, hanging out in the rivers is a lot of fun.  Every snorkeling search is an adventure, and the unknown can be super exciting. We never know what to expect. All of us are great at exercising our imaginations. In the end, we always make it through to the next site and with all our fingers attached.  On to another survey! 

Wetsuits or Wet Suits?

This week, your favorite freshwater native mussel researchers were at it again in the Chippewa River near Benson, MN. Since we finished the Chippewa aggregations last time, we instead focused on doing timed searches and gathering sediment samples.

Maya, Clara, and Mark counting mussels

Brooke, Kelly, and Molly (that's me!) measuring water velocity

The water was often high with a strong current, but the team made do, starting at the most upstream site (which theoretically has the smallest amount of water running through it) and working our way downstream. Some sites reminded us of the good ol' days in the Snake River, when our bags were filled to the brim with mussels....

Mussel data collection at the Chippewa River

And others? Nada, zip, the big zero. These sites were a lot of shifting sand, and the mussels had shifted right on out of there, leaving us with mussel graveyards and hungry leeches....

Mussel data collection at the Chippewa River

Maya and Clara warm up on the roadside
 The weirdest thing about this week's trip was the donning of the short wetsuits! We wore legless wetsuits for part of the week, and even shed them completely in favor of our sediment-y swim suits. Which was amazing. We felt so gloriously free in our own skins! The one downside? You get cold. Oh well!

After 3 days of hard work, we succeeded in completing 9 different sites, so we headed home back to the Twin Cities. In the words of Prof. Kelly, "Yay team!"

Eat Like a Local

All demanding field work requires satisfying meals to sustain the incredible energy output. As we have all learned, snorkeling and fighting strong currents all day can really give you an appetite, so our field experience has included many meals in many restaurants.

But which ones should we go to? Since our project is funded by the LCCMR (Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources), we have decided that the best way to use Minnesota's money is to put it back in the pockets of local Minnesotan businesses. As a result, we have become quite the connoisseurs of the "Authentic Mexican Restaurants" of Southern MN, and discovered the best places to grab a cheap, tasty bite to eat ($2 Burger Baskets, anyone?!) The locals are always extremely friendly and willing to talk about anything, from farming's impact on water to China's monetary policies to how we look like we might eat our hands off if we don't get our food in the next two minutes. 

Molly, Brooke, and Maya enjoy their Mexican Flag enchiladas at Authentic Mexican Restaurant in New Ulm, MN

It feels really nice to get to know not just the local Minnesotan mussels, but the townspeople and the landowners adjacent to the bridges and rivers we snorkle in. Talking with people can also give us really valuable information about the river systems and land use changes that might affect or give context to our results. Building local relationships is always important in the scientific research world!

Digesting our food babies after a full lunch at the Coffee Pot Cafe in Alexandria, MN (Now serving Pepsi!)