Western Freshwater Mussels

By Celeste Mazzacano

A handful of western freshwater mussels. Photo: Celeste Mazzacano

Freshwater mussels are experiencing a dramatic decline; 72% percent of North American freshwater mussels are considered extinct or imperiled, representing one of the most at-risk groups of animals in the United States (learn more about mollusks in general here). The decline of freshwater mussels has been well studied in eastern North America but has received very little attention in states west of the Rocky Mountains. To better understand the status and distribution of these animals, the Xerces Society in partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) Mussel Project has completed extinction risk assessments for four of the six species of western freshwater mussels using the methods and criteria of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™: the western pearlshell (Margaritifera falcata), the western ridged mussel (Gonidea angulata), the winged floater (includes both Anodonta nuttalliana and previously-recognized A. californiensis), and the Oregon floater (includes both Anodonta oregonensis and previously-recognized A. kennerlyi). Too little information was available to assess the Yukon floater (Anodonta beringiana) or the woebegone floater (Anodonta dejecta). We concluded that declines have occurred in parts of each species’ range, and both the western ridged mussel and the winged floater are Vulnerable to extinction; the western pearlshell is Near Threatened. Although populations of the Oregon floater have also declined, they are ranked Least Concern. Evidence suggests that these animals are experiencing population declines due to habitat alteration or destruction, and mussels have been relatively neglected in western aquatic conservation efforts.

Native freshwater mussels have immense ecological and cultural significance. As filter-feeders, they can substantially improve water quality by filtering out harmful pollutants, which benefits both humans and aquatic ecosystems. Freshwater mussels can benefit native fish by making food more visible and bioavailable to the fish. These animals can be highly sensitive to environmental changes and thus have great potential to be used as indicators of water quality. Freshwater mussels have been historically important sources of food, tools, and other implements for many Native American tribes. Native Americans in the interior Columbia Basin have harvested these animals for at least 10,000 years, and they remain an important cultural heritage for tribes today.

Have you seen or worked with western freshwater mussels? We’re seeking information on observations for the Western Freshwater Mussel Database (see below), tracking mussel relocation projects, and documenting observations of mussel die-offs. Please share your observations with us by contacting us at [email protected].



Western Freshwater Mussel Database

The Xerces Society and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have compiled a database of western freshwater mussel records for the following species and clades: Anodonta californiensis/nuttalliana, A. oregonensis/kennerlyi, Gonidea angulata, and Margaritifera falcata. Copies of this database are available to researchers upon request. For a full list of contributors and data sources used for this database, click here.

PNW Native Freshwater Mussel Workgroup


Visit the Pacific Northwest Native Freshwater Mussel Workgroup website, Facebook page, or Freshwater Mussels of the Western US iNaturalist project for more information.

Conserving the Gems of Our Waters

By Emilie Blevins, Laura McMullen, Sarina Jepsen, Michele Blackburn, Aimée Code, and Scott Hoffman Black. This publication provides guidance and resources for a range of topics, from incorporating freshwater mussels into project planning, surveying for mussels, implementing best management practices, and performing salvages and relocations at restoration sites. Download this guide as a PDF here.

Mussel-Friendly Restoration

By Emilie Blevins, Laura McMullen, Sarina Jepsen, Michele Blackburn, Aimée Code, and Scott Hoffman Black. Mussel-Friendly Restoration is a companion guide to Conserving the Gems of Our Waters, intended to answer common questions related to best management practices and serve as useful tool for restoration practitioners, construction project managers, and other professionals while working onsite. Although the document focuses on species of mussels native to western North America, this handbook can be used as a starting point in other regions to conserve not only freshwater mussels, but also the incredible benefits they provide. Download the guide as a PDF here.


Freshwater Mussel Conservation: A Guide to Saving the Unsung Heroes of Our Waters

Learn about the importance of freshwater mussels for ecosystems, cultures, and water quality, as well as threats facing these vital, yet hidden, creatures. Featuring artwork by Patrick Norton. Download this brochure as a PDF here.


Freshwater Mussels of the Pacific Northwest (2nd edition)

By Ethan Nedeau, Al Smith, Jen Stone and Sarina Jepsen. This guide was a project of the Pacific Northwest Native Freshwater Mussel Workgroup, a consortium of individuals from state and federal agencies, private businesses and nonprofits that aims to conserve freshwater mussels by ensuring that research, management, and educational activities are coordinated, prioritized, and consistent with identified information needs. Download this guide as a PDF here.

Native Freshwater Mussels in the Pacific Northwest

Our work has helped address existing gaps in capacity and education, but there are many opportunities to work with new partners in additional watersheds and across cultures. Native Freshwater Mussels in the Pacific Northwest is a guide to help those organizations in their restoration and conservation work. Click here to download the guide.

Quick Reference Guide to Western Freshwater Mussels

A quick reference guide to assist in identifying live and shell species is available for download here.

Freshwater Mussel Relocation Guidelines

Written and edited by Christina Luzier and Shelly Miller. Mussel relocation projects are undertaken for a variety of reasons. these guidelines were developed to ensure such relocation efforts are guided by research-based protocols to minimize harm and ensure relocation is successful.

Overlooked Gems: The Benefits of Freshwater Mussels

By Al Smith and Sarina Jepsen. This article from our Fall 2008 issue of Wings magazine explores the history, biology, and future conservation concerns of native freshwater mussels in the US.


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