WASHINGTON, D.C. — November 22, 2021 — What river creature looks like a fish but isn’t? Has a foot but rarely moves? Purifies water just by breathing?
It’s one of the most secretive river animals in the world — and also one of the most important. Freshwater mussels.
Take the green-blossom pearlymussel of the southern Appalachian mountains. These beautifully named bivalves spend most of their lives buried in gravel at the headwaters of the Tennessee River. A single pearlymussel cleanses 10 gallons of water every day — and can survive only in clear, shallow rapids.
Here’s a fact you might not know:
Freshwater mussels also have one of the natural world’s most fascinating lifecycles. The parent mussel sends out part of its body to wiggle around like a struggling fish. When a real fish swims up to investigate, the mussel captures the fish and deposits larvae into its gills. Mussels that make it to adulthood can survive 50 years in the same half-mile reach of river — unless they are eaten by hungry otters, egrets or herons.
Mussels rely on fish to reproduce, and larger animals rely on mussels to eat. And they all rely on healthy, clean, free-flowing rivers. It’s biological diversity in action. Misplace one brick, and the entire structure could crumble.
The last living green-blossom pearlymussel was seen in the mid-1980s. But it’s not too late to help the rest of these vulnerable creatures. We’re doing our part by taking down dams to release the flow of rivers. We’re working to protect mussel habitat by protecting free-flowing rivers. And we’re innovating ways to keep city pollution out of streams and away from mussels’ siphons.
Our rivers are blessed with 300 types of freshwater mussels — more than anywhere else on Earth. These incredible mollusks help keep our rivers and ecosystems healthy. Let’s keep it that way!