Endangered species protection is proposed for two freshwater mussels

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Two funny-named species of freshwater mussels currently found in rivers of the Great Lake states were recently proposed for Endangered Species Act protection.

The rayed bean and snuffbox mussels were recently proposed to be listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Chemical contaminants, sedimentation, nonpoint source pollution and mining are threats to their habitat’s water quality, according to the service.

“Most of the impacts to their habitat are from human activities,” said Angela Boyer, endangered species coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who drafted the proposal. “Mussels need very clean water to survive.”

The rayed bean gets its name from its small size and green rays. Photo by: Angela Boyer

The rayed bean can be found in rivers throughout the region including in Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Ontario and Pennsylvania. The mussel also exists in West Virginia. It gets its name from its small size and it’s wavy green rays.

Once existing in 111 streams across the United States and Lake Erie, the rayed bean population has suffered a 75 percent decline. It is now only found in 28 streams and Lake Erie.

The snuffbox is similar in shape to the anatomical snuffbox, the small triangular indent between the base of the thumb and start of the wrist. Photo by G.Thomas Watters

The snuffbox can be found in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio. They also exist in rivers throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. It is triangular shaped, similar to the triangular anatomical deepening on the human hand between the wrist and the base of the thumb that is called the snuffbox.

The mussel was at one time prevalent throughout 208 streams in the nation and now can only be found in 74.

“The snuffbox is not doing well in a lot of streams that it used to be,” said Boyer. “The numbers are hanging on.”

Mussels are important indicators of water quality. North America has some of the greatest diversity of mussels in the world, however 70 percent of them are extinct or imperiled, according to the Nature Conservancy. That’s worse than the 16.5 percent of mammals and 14.6 percent of bird species that are extinct.

There are  more than 78 known species of mussels in the Midwest. Half  are considered threatened or endangered.

“They are kind of like the canary in the coal mine as far as water goes,” said Georgia Parham, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The fact that these species are declining and in need of listing is actually an indicator of our own water quality.”

Many times the streams where the mussels exist also is a public water supply,  according to Parham.

Mussels also help to stabilize riverbeds through their burrowing in the bottom.

“This is telling us that there is something wrong, because the species that are supposed to be there are not,” said Boyer.

The public has until Jan. 3 to comment on the endangered species proposal for both species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking for contributions of any studies showing population trends or size of the two species, information on current or foreseeable threats to the species and any pertinent life history.

“The fact that we are proposing it for listing indicates that we have information that says it should be listed,” said Parham. “But we can’t do that before we go through the public comment period.”

“If these species do become officially listed as endangered, it would become illegal for someone to go out and knowingly harm or kill them,” said Boyer. “It also triggers section 7 of the endangered species act, which requires federal agencies to talk to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure they are not funding or enabling a project that may harm these species.”

If listed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would also develop a recovery plan that would set steps for how recovering the species population so that protection was no longer warranted.

“If we lose these species, they are irreplaceable,” said Boyer. “Extinction is forever.”

4 thoughts on “Endangered species protection is proposed for two freshwater mussels

  1. This article helped me a lot with my science report based on endangered species in Freshwater areas and animals living in it. Thank you!

  2. Adirondack Almanack (by staff), November 17, 2010:

    [SNIPS] “The New York State Museum has received a $1 million federal grant to conduct a new research project aimed at protecting endangered species of native freshwater mussels from the impacts of invasive zebra mussels…

    …Museum scientists will use what they are calling an “environmentally safe invention — a biopesticide” to continue their research with a new emphasis on open water applications. The project will be led by Museum research scientists Daniel Molloy and Denise Mayer…

    …Museum scientists also discovered that dead cells of this strain were equally as lethal as live cells, providing clear evidence that the mussels died from a natural toxin in the cells, not from infection. This is very significant because it means that future commercial formulations will contain dead cells, thus further reducing environmental concerns…”


  3. Nice article Haley. I never realized how important mussels are. I think you really need to get this article out there to more people because it presents a strong argument that I’m sure other people aren’t aware of either.

  4. Another great story, Echo people.

    Many of the freshwater mussels indigenous to the Great Lakes have fantastic names like the ray bean and snuffbox. However, they haven’t been charismatic enough to override zebra and quagga mussel fame (or infamy?).

    The Michigan Natural Features Inventory is a great resource for learning more about our native mussels and such. Click on the “explorer” link for all types of info on each of the species:

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