You probably haven’t heard of the golden rifleshell mussel, but for Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation in Frankfort, saving these yellowy, fan-shaped river-dwellers from extinction is a daily battle.
More than two-thirds of all identified North American freshwater mussel species are extinct or endangered, but these unassuming creatures play a vital role in aquatic ecosystems. They stabilize riverbeds to create viable ecosystems for other organisms and filter river water. A single mussel can filter more than 50 liters of water per day, removing algae and pollution, including toxic substances dumped into rivers as industrial waste. They’re like the canary in the coalmine of riverbeds.
Unfortunately, the same threats they protect against are also leading to their demise. Construction of habitat-destroying dams in conjunction with industrial dumping and chemical spills have led to massive die-offs.
Now, the team from the center is using an unusual method to save the golden rifleshell: mollusk surgery. The golden rifleshell dwells in the mountain streams of Appalachia. The researchers are carefully removing larvae from the live mussels and raising them safely in labs to be released once they’re mature. After extracting the larvae, they are raised in a meticulously maintained tank with precise algae and nutrient levels.
So far, the initiative appears to be successful. It’s painstaking work, but some of the raised larvae are now producing their own offspring in the lab and of the 700 re-released specimens, an estimated 300 are still alive in Virginia riverbeds, which is higher than natural survival rates for the mussels.
The team’s ultimate goal is to introduce a viable population that can survive without intervention and protects river ecosystems to prevent pollution, but until this is possible, the researchers are singlehandedly keeping this vital species alive with their innovative scientific repopulation solution.