Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Why Research Mussels?

When you look at a river, the first thing you think of is probably not the small invertebrates living within it. But there is a lot more going on under the surface than you might expect.
Freshwater mussels are just one component of a diverse and complex ecosystem. Together, these parts allow us to enjoy the many benefits of a healthy river, from canoeing and fishing to taking in a great view. In ecology, perks that people get from an ecosystem are called ecosystem services, and you might be surprised by the variety of ways mussels are in your life.

Historically, mussels have been an important material used in making buttons thanks to the pearly insides of their shells. While buttons today aren’t made of mussel shells, mussels are still used in the pearl industry. Shells of freshwater mussels are also important beyond their use as pearl-making machines, and are even important culturally. Their many colors, shapes, and sizes are key to their ornamental role. Who can resist picking up shells from the side of a riverbank!

Photo Source: Thad Allender

And of course, mussels directly influence the river systems they live in! Their filter feeding improves water clarity, signaling when a water system may be contaminated. This makes them a great indicator species for environmental conditions as well as enhancing the beauty and cleanliness of our rivers.They physically modify the habitat by burrowing down into the substrate and taking up that space, which can also move sediment around. Mussels also can anchor nutrients by excreting organic matter in the form of waste into the substrate, preventing everything being swept away downstream.

A site on the Snake River where we collected mussels this week.

Clearly, there is more to mussels than the average Minnesotan might assume. And because upwards of 70% of our native mussel species are threatened or endangered, it’s important to understand where mussels live and what they do. Keep reading our blog as we investigate these questions and continue Mission: Mussel.

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