Help Identify Native Mussels

With high water levels receding on many streams and rivers, state conservation biologists are now encouraging paddlers, anglers and other water lovers to take a few minutes to help protect some of the most important yet least known members of Wisconsin’s aquatic ecosystems: native freshwater mussels.

A new video shows volunteers how to search shorelines or shallow water for freshwater mussels native to Wisconsin and known by such colorful names as white heelsplitter, fatmucket, Wabash pigtoe and fluted shell. Volunteers are asked to photograph the mussels they collect and return live mussels to the water, then report that information to DNR’s Wisconsin Mussel Monitoring Program,

“We have 52 native mussel species in Wisconsin and 24 of them are endangered, threatened or special concern, meaning their populations are low or declining,” said Jesse Weinzinger, a conservation biologist who coordinates the monitoring program. “We’d like to have your help in contributing information on where these mussels live so we can better understand their distribution and how to protect them.”

Such information can help guide where DNR and partners work to protect and restore mussels. For example, staff work with transportation officials to help avoid or move mussel populations when road and bridge projects could potentially impact them.

Freshwater mussels, also known as clams, are important for healthy lakes, rivers, and streams. They are not the invasive zebra mussels that potentially disrupt aquatic ecosystems and smother native mussels and are a major factor in declining native mussel populations, said Lisie Kitchel, who, like Weinzinger, works for DNR’s Natural Heritage Conservation Program.

“Native mussels are our good mussels and they are important for healthy lakes and rivers,” she said. Each native freshwater mussel can filter gallons of water a day, removing pollutants like mercury and other contaminants. They are food for raccoons, muskrats, otters, herons and other wildlife. They are even food for fish when the mussels are young.

Because native mussels filter environmental pollutants, Kitchel advises against eating them but encourages people to submit reports about them. “With 84,000 miles of streams in Wisconsin and more than 15,000 lakes, there are a great many sites we’re not able to get to,” she said. “Volunteers can help us fill in gaps in information.”

She advises people to take the time to properly evaluate the site they want to search for safety concerns before surveying, to follow the steps in the video, and report what they find. Volunteers can report by setting up a free account on the popular reporting platform iNaturalist, which has a mobile app and a website, or by emailing photos and location information to the mussel monitoring program.

To find the training video, photos and descriptions of freshwater mussels and more, search online for Wisconsin Mussel Monitoring Program.

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