Threats to Freshwater Mussels and the Consequences for Ecosystems – Science Nation


CARYN VAUGHN: They have very colorful names. This is
called a Pistol Grip, cause it fits in your hand like a pistol. MILES O’BRIEN: Freshwater mussels with names like Fat
Muckets, Bank Climbers, and Heel Splitters, are critical to river ecosystems. But many are in trouble. CARYN VAUGHN: And probably about 70% of the species
are threatened in some way. MILES O’BRIEN: With support from the National Science
Foundation, zoologist, Caryn Vaughn, studies mussels’ role in their environment. These invertebrates need
plentiful water to thrive, and healthy fish to reproduce. CARYN VAUGHN: So freshwater mussels, they can’t move
very far, right? So the way they get around is by sticking their larvae on a fish, and the fish takes it
to a new habitat. CARYN VAUGHN: The major problem for freshwater mussels
now is habitat fragmentation and channelization by dams. MILES O’BRIEN: Years ago, mussels were at risk because
their shells made beautiful beautiful buttons. Now it’s all about the human need for water. Vaughn
does her fieldwork in southeastern Oklahoma, a region hard hit by drought in 2011. CARYN VAUGHN: This one river that we’ve been working
in for over 20 years, we’ve probably lost a third of the mussels in that river. MILES O’BRIEN: If you can believe it, mussels live 30
to 50 years. And they’re hard workers during that time, cleaning the water. CARYN VAUGHN: So they’re filtering water and taking
impurities out of it. The direction that we’re trying to go next in our research is to put monetary values
on these services that mussels are providing, and hopefully show that if you leave the mussels in
the river, then it will save you this much money in water treatment. MILES O’BRIEN: At the aquatic research facility at the
University of Oklahoma, she’s found that in mussel beds, diversity counts.
The more species, the healthier. CARYN VAUGHN: So we’re asking, do Bank Climbers and
Muckets, when they’re together, do something different than Muckets when they’re just by themselves. They’re
definitely in better condition when they’re in more diverse beds. MILES O’BRIEN: Mussel shells also shelter and nurture
insect larvae and other tiny creatures. Another reason, Vaughn says, to help these mussels
stay strong. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.

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