Rare and Imperiled Mussels of the Vermilion River Basin

Illinois endangered Rainbow – Cambarunio iris

Freshwater mussels are important animals in the riverine ecosystem and serve several roles. They actively filter sediment and bacteria, they stabilize and aerate substrates, and they deposit nutrients and food for other bottom-dwelling species. Unfortunately, many species of mussels – over 60% – are imperiled. The Vermilion of the Wabash River basin in east-central Illinois and western Indiana supports populations of several rare and imperiled mussel species, though researchers need updated information on the size and age structure of these populations to accurately conserve them. A new study funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Illinois Department of Natural Resources will provide updated population information for this basin. If you’d like to learn more about these efforts, email lead investigators – Alison Stodola or Sarah Douglass. They are hosting an informational seminar for landowners or interested parties on February 13 at 10 am at Kennekuk County Park in the Environmental Sciences Center.

RSVP for the seminar at go.illinois.edu/MusselTalk.

Freshwater Mollusks of the World: A Distribution Atlas

It was a chilly day in late February when Kevin Cummings found an unexpected package in his mailbox: an advance copy of his new book, Freshwater Mollusks of the World: A Distribution Atlas.

Nearly four years earlier, snail expert Chuck Lydeard had contacted Kevin to see if he would be interested in helping compile the atlas. Lydeard’s vision was to create the first comprehensive summary of systematic and biodiversity information on the world’s 43 freshwater mollusk (snail, mussel, and clam) families.

As a renowned expert on freshwater mussels, Lydeard thought Kevin— an Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) scientist and curator of mollusks—would make a great co-author.

Lydeard and Kevin dove into the project feet first. Read about the Freshwater Mollusks project.

Researchers rescue mussels on the Vermilion River

DANVILLE, ILLINOIS – When Vermilion River water levels fell as the Danville Dam was removed this summer, hundreds of mussels had to find their way back to the river or they would perish on the shore. Lucky for the mollusks, Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) researchers came to their rescue, moving mussels by hand into deeper water. Since the project started in mid-July, approximately 800 mussels from 21 different species were moved in a 2-mile stretch of river, including several species that are rare in Illinois.

“We had a few pleasant surprises,” said Jeremy Tiemann, INHS aquatic ecologist. “We found species that are on the state threatened and endangered lists, and others categorized as a species in greatest need of conservation.”

Read about this mussel relocation project

Weightless in San Luis Potosi

OUTSIDE VALLES, MEXICO — When we first arrived at this stream, I knew we were in a special location. The clear, turquoise blue water rivals that of any picture from a Caribbean tour magazine. When I put my snorkeled face in the water, I can actually see mussels in the streambed below, something that doesn’t happen very often in Illinois streams. Collecting the mussels, however, is proving difficult.

Read Jeremy Tiemann’s account of this effort to collect freshwater mussels from the Valles River basin in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.

Team discovers a new invasive clam in the U.S.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — They found it in the Illinois River near the city of Marseilles, Illinois, about 80 miles west of Lake Michigan – a strange entry point for an invasive Asian clam. The scientists who found it have no idea how it got there. But the discovery – along with genetic tests that confirm its uniqueness – means that a new species or “form” of invasive clam has made its official debut in North America.

Read more about the discovery of this invasive clam.

Study Finds Recent Size Changes in Illinois River Mussel Shells

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Man-made levees and water pollution have made an impact on the fish and other fauna of the Illinois River throughout the 20th century, but researchers at the Prairie Research Institute (PRI), University of Illinois, have taken an even longer view of human-induced changes in freshwater mussels, dating back to pre-Columbian times.

Significant size changes in mussel shells suggest that the river environment has been altered. Read the full story from the Prairie Research Institute.

This PRI-funded study was recently published in the Journal of Science of the Total Environment.

Researchers move endangered mussels to save them

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Researchers have transported two endangered freshwater mussel species from Pennsylvania to Illinois in an attempt to re-establish their populations in the western part of the Ohio River Basin.

Environmental Almanac: Rare mussel found in Illinois River

Researchers participated in a salvage operation for mussels stranded during a drawdown of the Illinois River near Marseilles, Illinois, to retrieve seven barges that had broken free and gotten pinned on the dam a few months prior. During this operation, Kevin Cummings, state malacologist and one of around 25 biologists helping with the census and salvage found a live Scaleshell—which hadn’t been documented alive in Illinois for over a century.

“Few people in the world would have recognized they were holding anything special, but Cummings has spent decades assessing museum collections around the world to create an accurate database of Illinois mussels. ‘One of these things is not like the others,’ is what he told me he thought when he picked it up. Without any prompting from Cummings, his INHS crew came up with the same identification, and that was later confirmed by DNA analysis by Kevin Roe of Iowa State University, an authority on the genetics of the scaleshell.”

Read the full story in Rob Kanter’s Environmental Almanac in the News Gazette .

Getting the scoop on Illinois mussels

The freshwater mussels that inhabit the streams of Illinois spend most of their lives buried in the substrate, exposing only the parts they use to take in and expel a steady flow of water, from which they filter their food. This mode of living poses certain challenges for the scientists whose work it is to monitor mussel populations. As Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) field biologist Alison Price explained to me, it is sometimes possible to sample for mussels visually, but only in waters that are shallow and clear enough to afford a good view of the streambed—a rare case in the Prairie State. More often, she and her colleagues sample for mussels by “grubbing.” “It is what it sounds like,” she quipped. “You reach down and rake your fingers through the sand and gravel until you feel a shell.”  … Read the full story here.