Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Episode 432 (8-6-18): Virginia's Freshwater Mussels - Part 1: An Introduction to Mussel Biology and Population Status

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (6:16)

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, images, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 8-3-18.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of August 6, 2018.

MUSIC – ~10 sec

That music is an excerpt of “Cockles and Mussels,” a 19-Century Irish song also called “Molly Malone,” whose lyrics are about a fish seller on the streets of Dublin.  That fish merchant would have been selling saltwater mussels, the kind of mussels with which beachgoers or restaurant diners may be familiar. Less familiar to many people, however, are freshwater mussels.  This week, Virginia Water Radio begins a series on Virginia’s freshwater mussels and efforts to restore the populations of these important, filter-feeding components of aquatic environments.  To begin, have a listen for about 25 seconds to Virginia’s Clinch River and several guest voices calling out some mysterious, descriptive names.

SOUNDS - ~24 sec

You heard the common names of 13 species of freshwater mussels known from Virginia.  Some are known from the Clinch and other rivers in the watershed of the Upper Tennessee River in southwestern Virginia, while others are from the Commonwealth’s Atlantic Slope rivers, such as the James.  Ten of the species whose names you heard are listed as either federal or state endangered species.  In fact, of 77 total freshwater mussel species known from Virginia, three have become extinct and 39—or 51 percent—are currently listed as endangered or threatened at the federal or state level.  That gives freshwater mussels by far the highest percentage of threatened or endangered species of any group in Virginia.

Freshwater mussels are of interest not only because of this population status but also because of their unusual life cycle and their ecological roles in rivers and other waters.  To learn more about freshwater mussels and their biology, have a listen for about two minutes to Jess Jones, a mussel biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the director of the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center at Virginia Tech.

VOICE - ~1 min/55 sec

Since 1994, Virginia Tech scientists and students have conducted activities to study mussels, grow them in culture, and restore them to locations in rivers in Virginia and Tennessee.  That work has been done in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and it’s been supported by grants from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the states of Virginia and Tennessee.  The next episodes in this series will examine those mussel propagation and restoration activities.

Thanks to Timothy Seaman for permission to use this week’s music, and thanks to several Virginia Tech co-workers for lending their voices to this episode.


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


“Cockles and Mussels,” performed by Timothy Seaman, is from the 2004 album “Virginia Wildlife,” on Pine Wind Music; used with permission.  Mr. Seaman’s Web site is http://www.timothyseaman.com/.

The freshwater mussel common names called out in this episode are as follows: Deertoe, Elktoe, Rabbitsfoot, Appalachian Monkeyface, Cumberland Monkeyface, Purple Wartyback, Spike, Golden Riffleshell, Slippershell, Tennessee Heelsplitter, Snuffbox, James Spinymussel, and Spectaclecase.  Thanks to Athan Anderson, Rebecca Belcher, Bill Henley, Kathie Hollandsworth, Jess Jones, and Andrew Phipps for participating in the names call-out.

The Clinch River was recorded on July 1, 2018, in Russell County, Virginia.

Comments made by Jess Jones in this episode’s audio were recorded August 3, 2018, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Click here if you’d like to listen to an 18 min./43 sec. presentation on freshwater mussels given by Jess Jones on January 13, 2017, to faculty, staff, and students of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  Thanks to Will Pfiel of that college for making a recording of that talk available to Virginia Water Radio.

Click here
if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at http://www.bencosgrove.com.

Generalized freshwater mussel life cycle.  Image from Louis A. Helfrich, Richard J. Neves, and Hilary Chapman, “Sustaining America's Aquatic Biodiversity—Freshwater Mussel Biodiversity and Conservation,” Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 420-523, May 2009, online at https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/420/420-523/420-523.html.

Mussels on the menu at a restaurant in Annapolis, Md., August 4, 2018.  These would not have been freshwater mussels, but rather their saltwater counterparts.


Mussels, both those in freshwater and in marine environments, are classified in the phylum of mollusks.  That large taxonomic group also includes snails, cockles and other clams, oysters, scallops, squid, and other organisms.

The following information on freshwater mussels is from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Freshwater Mussels,” online at https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/freshwater-mussels/.

“What is a freshwater mussel?
Freshwater mussels are mollusks and are similar to their marine clam and oyster cousins.  They have two shells connected by a hinge-like ligament.  Around the world, mussels live in a variety of freshwater habitats but are most prevalent in stream and rivers. T hey vary in their adult sizes from those as small as a thumbnail to others as big as a pie plate.  The wide variety of shapes and colors are reflected in species like purple wartyback, pink heelsplitter, and threeridge.  On the stream bottom, mussels are sometimes only noticeable by two small siphons, which are used to draw and expel water.  When quickly dislodged, a large muscular foot that is used to move amongst the stream bottom can be readily seen.”

“How are mussels distributed?
The diversity of freshwater mussels in the United States is unmatched.  Of the estimated 1,000 species worldwide, the United States historically contained 304, about one-thrid of the total world’s fauna. …The lion’s share of this diversity is found in the southeastern drainages of the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mobile rivers.  One of the most diverse drainages, the Tennessee contains 102 species, nearly one-third of the country’s fauna!  Virginia becomes part of the equation because the Tennessee River headwaters are within the southwestern region of the state. Virginia’s portion of the Tennessee River drainage includes the Powell, Clinch, and Forks of the Holston (North, Middle, and South) rivers….”

“How do mussels function in the environment?
Freshwater mussels are an essential component of our rivers and streams.   By their siphoning actions, mussels filter bacteria, algae, and other small particles, which make them one of the few animals that improve water quality.  Mussels also serve as a food source to many species of fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals.  The outer shell of a live mussel is usually covered by aquatic insects, algae, and plants.  Even when dead, the empty shell functions as a nesting site for small fish like madtoms and darters.”

“What are uses people have found for freshwater mussels?
People have a long history of benefiting from mussels.  Native Americans used mussels as a ready food source, implements for tools, and as jewelry.   Before the advent of plastics in the 1930’s, most buttons were made from freshwater mussels.  Modern day buttons retain the luster of those found in earlier times.   Today, freshwater mussels are a key ingredient in the pearl industry.  Mussels are collected in several areas of the United States and their shells are sold to Asian markets.  Their shells are used to make numerous round beads that are placed in oysters and serve as the nuclei for freshwater pearls.”

“How do mussels reproduce?
The life cycle of the freshwater mussel is one the most complex and interesting in the animal world.  Unlike other animals that can actively search for a mate, the sedentary mussel depends on the river current to reproduce.  The process begins with the male releasing sperm, and the female located downstream drawing it in through her incurrent siphon.   Numbering in the 100’s to hundreds of thousands, the fertilized eggs develop into glochidia within her gills.  Once mature, they are released into the water column to begin the second part of their lives-attaching to the gills, fins, or scales of freshwater fishes.  At this point, the process is further complicated because not only do the glochidia have to find a fish, but it has to be one of a few specific fish species for the life cycle to continue.  If a glochidium attaches to the correct fish species, it encysts into the fish’s tissue and undergoes a short life as a parasite.  Over several weeks, it begins to develop gills, a foot, and other internal structures to become a juvenile mussel.  The now fully transformed, but still microscopic, juvenile will drop off the fish and begin its life on the stream bottom.…”


Used for Audio

Michael Davenport, “Freshwater vs. Marine Mussels,” Conserve Wildlife Blog, 8/27/12, online at http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/blog/2012/08/27/freshwater-vs-marine-mussels/.

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Cockle,” online at https://www.britannica.com/animal/cockle; “Mollusk,” online at https://www.britannica.com/animal/mollusk; and “Mussel,” online at https://www.britannica.com/animal/mussel#ref52271.

Robbie Harris, “Growing Mussels,” WVTF FM-Roanoke, Va., 1/7/14, 3 min. video with transcript, online at http://wvtf.org/post/growing-mussels.

Louis A. Helfrich, Richard J. Neves, and Hilary Chapman, “Sustaining America's Aquatic Biodiversity—Freshwater Mussel Biodiversity and Conservation,” Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 420-523, May 2009, online at https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/420/420-523/420-523.html.

Jess W. Jones, “Freshwater Mussels of Virginia (Bivalvia: Unionidae): An Introduction to Their Life History, Status and Conservation,” Virginia Journal of Science, Vol. 66, No. 3, Fall 2015, pp. 309-331; archives available online at http://vacadsci.org/publications/va-journal-of-science/virginia-journal-of-science-archives/.

Jess W. Jones, et al., “Clinch River Freshwater Mussels Upstream of Norris Reservoir, Tennessee and Virginia: A Quantitative Assessment from 2004 to 2009,” Journal of the American Water Resources Association, Vol. 40, No. 4, August 2014; journal available online at https://www.awra.org (subscription required for back issues).

Sean Murphy, “Molly Malone?” History Ireland, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 1993, online at https://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/molly-malone-by-sean-murphy/.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Endangered Species Program, “Protecting Our Waters: The Mussels of Virginia’s Clinch and Powell Rivers,” by Meagan Racey, 12/27/12, online at https://www.fws.gov/endangered/map/ESA_success_stories/VA/VA_story2/index.html [corresponds to Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries video listed below, “Endangered Mussels Released into the Clinch River, Largest Release in Eastern US,” 9/30/10, 2 min./36 sec., online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uf0ZIoNnuiI].

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Maryland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, “Freshwater Mussels” (2/18/16), online at https://www.fws.gov/northeast/marylandfisheries/Fish%20Facts/Freshwater%20mussels.html.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Midwest Region, “Endangered Species/America’s Mussels: Silent Sentinels,” online at https://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/clams/mussels.html.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, online at https://www.fws.gov/midwest/es/ec/nrda/index.html. See particularly “Protecting and Restoring the Powell River Watershed, Virginia,” December 2010 Fact Sheet, online (as PDF) at https://www.fws.gov/northeast/virginiafield/pdf/contaminants/20110120_final%20LMPI%20NRDAR%20fact%20sheet.pdf; and “Restoring the Clinch River Watershed, Tazewell County, Virginia,” November 2010 Fact Sheet, online (as PDF) at https://www.fws.gov/northeast/virginiafield/pdf/contaminants/20110120_final%20certus%20NRDAR%20fact%20sheet.pdf.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Northeast Ecological Services, “Giving Mussels a Boost in Tenn.’s Powell River,” 9/26/12, online at http://ne-ecological-services.blogspot.com/2012/09/giving-mussels-boost-in-tenns-powell.html.  This site includes a 2 min./32 sec. video on a mussel release and discussion by Jess Jones of Virginia Tech, online at https://youtu.be/ADy5BNkmRh4.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Southeast Region, “Southeastern Mussels,” online at https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mussels/.  This site includes photos and descriptions of several mussel species found in Virginia and the southeastern United States.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), “Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center,” online at https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/awcc/.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries videos: “Freshwater Mussels,” 7/6/09, 4 min./31 sec., online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URHTrAAkpr0; “Endangered Mussels Released into the Clinch River, Largest Release in Eastern US,” 9/30/10, 2 min./36 sec., online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uf0ZIoNnuiI [corresponds to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Endangered Species Program, “Protecting Our Waters: The Mussels of Virginia’s Clinch and Powell Rivers,” by Meagan Racey, 12/27/12, above]; and “Stocking Freshwater Mussels in Virginia’s Clinch River,” 10/28/16, 3 min./35 sec., online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wapu6ABfFSU&t=1s.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/?Title=VaFWIS+Species+Information+By+Name&vUT=Visitor.  Mussel species in Virginia are listed at this link.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Freshwater Mussels,” online at https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/freshwater-mussels/.

Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment, Mussels released into Tennessee’s Powell River, CNRE News, 2/10/17.

Virginia Tech Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center, online at https://www.fishwild.vt.edu/mussel/.

G. Thomas Watters et al., The Freshwater Mussels of Ohio, The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2009.

For More Information about Mussels and Other Mollusks
Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society, online at https://molluskconservation.org/.

Kentucky Educational Television, “Mussels of the Licking River,” 8/13/13, 7 min./3 sec. video, online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CneiYgGAcI.

Kentucky Afield, “Fresh Water Endangered Mussels,” 8/13/13, 11 min./49 sec. video online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErYjjjqhX6I.  This includes a tour of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ Center for Mollusk Conservation Research Lab in Frankfort.

WLUC TV6—Negaunee, Michigan, “906 Outdoors-Discovering/Freshwater Mussels,” 7/30/18, 22 min./32 min. video online at http://www.906outdoors.com/906outdoors/videos/S311.html (the mussels segment is the first of two topics in the video).

Melinda Williams, Volunteers needed to save stranded mussels, Southwest Times, 11/6/15.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the following subject categories: “Invertebrates Other Than Insects”; and “Rivers, Streams, and Other Surface Water.”

Following are links to some other episodes on the rivers in the Clinch River/Upper Tennessee River watershed.
Episode 420, 5/14/18 – Exploring Virginia’s Tennessee River Tributaries.
Episode 425, 6/18/18 – Introducing the South Fork Holston River.

Following are links to other episodes on mollusks.
Episode 262, 4/20/15 – Freshwater Snails.
Episode 279, 8/24/15 – Oysters, Nitrogen, and the Chesapeake Bay—Part 1.
Episode 280, 9/7/15 – Oysters, Nitrogen, and the Chesapeake Bay—Part 2.


The episode may help with Virginia 2013 Music SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

This episode may also help with the following Virginia 2010 Science SOLs.

Grades K-6 Scientific Investigation, Reasoning, and Logic Theme
2.1, 3.1, 4.1, 5.1, and 6.1 – All include “Current applications to reinforce science concepts.”

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
3.10- impacts on survival of species, including effects of fire, flood, disease, and erosion on organisms.
4.9 - Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decision, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
K.7 – basic needs and processes of plants and animals.
1.5 - animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
2.4 - life cycles.
3.4 - behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 - living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 - food webs.
3.6 - ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 - ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
5.5 - cell structures and functions, organism classification, and organism traits.
6.7 - natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.1 – understanding of scientific reasoning, logic, and the nature of science, including current applications to reinforce science concepts.
LS.4 - organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.6 - ecosystem interactions, including the water cycle, other cycles, and energy flow.
LS.8 - community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.9 - adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.
LS.10 - changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those changes, including climate changes and catastrophic disturbances.
LS.11 - relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Earth Science Course
ES.8 - influences by geologic processes and the activities of humans on freshwater resources, including identification of groundwater and major watershed systems in Virginia.

Biology Course
BIO.1 – current applications to reinforce science concepts.
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

The episode may also help with the following Virginia 2015 Social Studies SOLs.

Virginia Studies Course
VS.10 – knowledge of government, geography, and economics in present-day Virginia.

Civics and Economics Course
CE.6 – government at the national level.
CE.7 – government at the state level.
CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

World Geography Course
WG.2 - how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Government Course
GOVT.7 – national government organization and powers.
GOVT.8 – state and local government organization and powers.
GOVT.9 – public policy process at local, state, and national levels.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.
Episode 250 (1-26-15) – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255 (3-2-15) – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282 (9-21-15) – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten;
Episode 309 (3-28-16) – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 332 (9-12-16) – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403 (1-15-18) – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404 (1-22-18) – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406 (2-5-18) – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407 (2-12-19) – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.