To Reproduce, Mussels Go Fishing

The evolution of this freshwater pearl-maker reaches its apex in our Southeastern rivers

Imagine a clear creek in a northern Alabama woodland, a silvery minnow flitting innocently in the current. Suddenly, a bass moves in for the kill.

In any other story, the fish would get a meal. But here, all the bass gets is a faceful of larval freshwater mussels cleverly disguised as a minnow. Like all freshwater mussels, these will attach themselves to their host fish until they can make it on their own. Following mussel-rich Southeastern rivers and the biologists and shell fishermen who work on them, writer Adele Conover discovered that after centuries of benefiting from mussels, we are still learning about these endangered bivalves.

American freshwater mussels are the most diverse in the world. Ancient Mound Builders treasured their meat, shells and pearls. In the 19th century, the accidental discovery of valuable pearls in freshwater mussels led to pearl rushes in waters from New York to Texas. The pearl mania, along with the burgeoning manufacture of shell buttons, nearly wiped out whole mussel populations. Today, shell from American freshwater mussels supports a multibillion-dollar global industry as the best material for cultured pearl nuclei.

But pollution, exploitation and dams--not to mention the encroaching zebra mussel--are jeopardizing 70 percent of American mussel species. With their diverse mussel populations, Southeastern waterways are critical hot spots. Captive breeding, the conservation of habitat and the identification of fish hosts are the focus of efforts to protect American freshwater mussels.

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