Scientists save mussels marooned by dam inspection

Sunday, October 15, 2006

HERMITAGE, Mo. -- An inspection of a southwest Missouri dam sent scientists scrambling to rescue and study mussels that were marooned when releases of water were stopped.

The Pomme de Terre River is lowered every five years so the dam can be inspected.

"Our major concern is that the de-watering process downstream is going to leave a lot of mussel beds high and dry," said Missouri Department of Conservation biologist Steve McMurray. "They can kind of close up their shells and shut down for a while, but after a while they'll be affected."

McMurray and other freshwater mussel experts led an effort that started Thursday to rescue and study the bivalves, which hold potential for cleaning polluted streams. The rarer species received special treatment to make sure their new homes were suitable.

At least 67 species of mussel inhabit Missouri's waterways, with at least 20 species in the Pomme de Terre River alone.

Four of the species in the river are listed as species of concern in Missouri and one as threatened. Their foes are habitat degradation, poachers and competition from fast-breeding Asian clams and zebra mussels.

Chris Barnhart, a Missouri State University biologist and mussel expert, remarked about the beauty of the creatures as he removed a particularly colorful species from a red plastic bucket.

"One of these is sort of gem quality," he said. "People don't think of freshwater mussels as being pretty, but they're kind of like Easter eggs."

Their beauty has created challenges.

Barnhart, who works with the Conservation Department to propagate native mussels, doubts there's much demand in eating native mussels because they are "tough as shoe leather." But their shells are used to create cultured pearls and, for some, jewelry.

Based on several arrests, McMurray suspected poachers are selling the creatures outside Missouri.

Commercial mussel harvesting is allowed in Missouri, but the Conservation Department hasn't issued a license in a decade, McMurray said.

Barnhart thinks mussels could provide a much more important service to humans than as a material for bobbles.

He suspects mussels might eat bacteria and could be used as natural water filters.

"They could be removing E. coli from the water and other human pathogens," he said.

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