Rare mussels make home in Poplar Bluff

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- For a mundane creature that lacks the importance of the bald eagle on the endangered species list, the murky Black River waters that run through this town appear to be a good hideout.

One biological researcher says he's found a habitat for certain federally endangered and threatened freshwater mussels beneath Poplar Bluff bridges.

Not to mention a slew of other mussels important for state biologists.

Working out of Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Christian Hutson spent last summer traversing 83 miles of the Black River. He documented the number and the distribution of the endangered freshwater mussels.

Historically, 65 species live in Missouri. Some species have a life span of just a few years and others live well over 50 years, Hutson said.

The area around Poplar Bluff has a plethora of these mud-dwelling mollusks. It was around the town that Hutson found one federally endangered species -- the pink mucket -- two state en-dangered species and eight species that are on state watch lists.

"Mussels are not the most charismatic animal," Hutson said. "They don't have a head. They live where people don't encounter them. Most people like bald eagles, otters or whooping cranes, but mussels are just as important in the overall scheme of things."

They serve as "a canary in the coal mine," an indicator of the overall health and quality of a river's habitat, Hutson said.

Mussels filter their food from the water they siphon in. Excess silt or pollution in the river will affect the mussels, he said.

When there are a multitude of mussels, chances are the river in which they are found is a healthy, dynamic environment. If the mussels disappear, Hutson said, it is a warning to biologists that the ecology of the waterway is being adversely affected.

At one time mussels were even a food source for Native Americans, but not today.

"I have known a few people who have tried to eat them, and no one has enjoyed them very much," Hutson said, "especially if you find a species that has been alive for 30 or 40 years."

Taste aside, they do have interesting shells.

"Some of them are really gorgeous," said Hutson. "But as they live in the bottom of the river and you aren't going to go there, you probably won't see them."

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