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April 08, 2024

41 Minutes

Guests: Emilie Blevins, Jack Fetters

Tags: mussels, community science, endangered species, staff guests,

We are going underwater to highlight an invertebrate that isn’t an insect — the freshwater mussel. These animals may not be well-known but are powerhouses in our freshwater ecosystems, playing a critical role in our lakes and rivers. 

Guest Information

Emilie Blevins and Jack Fetters are both endagered species conservation biologists at the Xerces Society. Emilie serves as the lead on all Xerces freshwater mussel conservation work and Jack serves as a specialist on western freshwater mussel conservation.

Show Notes & Links

In this episode, we start with the basics of what makes freshwater mussels unique and then take a dive into their cool life history. We discuss how freshwater mussels are studied and surveyed and their population status. We end by covering the many actions anyone can take to help these important invertebrates.

Transcript

Matthew: Welcome to bug banter with the Xerces society where we explore the world of invertebrates and how to help these extraordinary animals. If you want to support our work go to xerces.org/give.

Rachel: Hi, I'm Rachel Dunham in Missoula, Montana.

Matthew: And I'm Matthew Shepherd in Portland, Oregon.

Rachel: In this episode of Bug Banter, we are going underwater to highlight an invertebrate that isn’t an insect — the freshwater mussel. These animals may not be well-known but are powerhouses in our freshwater ecosystems, playing a critical role in our lakes and rivers.

Rachel: We’re joined today by not only one but two guests! — Emilie Blevins and Jack Fetters, who are both conservation biologists on the endangered species team at the Xerces Society. Emilie serves as the lead on all freshwater mussel conservation work and Jack serves as a specialist on western freshwater mussel conservation work at Xerces.

Rachel: Welcome Emilie and Jack! We're so happy to have you here today.

Matthew: Yeah, of course, and this is great. And I know that a lot of the animals we work with at Xerces Society are kind of overlooked, but freshwater mussels are quite literally out of sight. We wouldn't even know that they're there. So, I mean, can we start with some of this like really basic information?

Matthew: I mean, what do they look like? Where do they live? Why should we care?

Emilie: Yeah, those are some great questions. So freshwater mussels, they're really fascinating animals. We often do overlook them because they are under the water surface where we don't spend much time.

Emilie: They are these really incredible animals. They are composed of two shells. So, they're bi-valves and within those two shells, there is an animal that really, we rarely see much of. If you were to pluck a mussel from the bottom of the stream or river where they live, it would close up, it would clam up. And so, you wouldn't really see the animal inside.

Emilie: So, they often really just look like rocks under the water. But when you get a closer look, especially if you were to say snorkel, in your local stream, what you would see under the surface is far more interesting. There, this animal lives between those two valves of the shell, they're composed of, this mantle tissue that secretes the shell and sometimes there's really neat ornamentation on that mantle tissue. Because they live on the bottom of the stream, they filter water.

Emilie: That's how they breathe. That's how they feed. That's actually how they reproduce as well. And so, they're filtering that water constantly, helping to make it cleaner. When you look closely you could even see inside a mussel.

Emilie: You can see into their interior where they have gills. It's pretty fascinating. They're open to that river environment, and so, they're really like a basic part of our rivers and they live all over the globe. So, in freshwater ecosystems, not in brackish water, or estuaries, or the ocean, but they live in these freshwater systems including lakes and ponds.

Emilie: They can be found on every continent except Antarctica. So, there's a good chance that if you have a stream flowing near your house or lake that it's a place where you could find freshwater mussels.

Rachel: I think people are probably familiar, especially those who live on the coast or spend time at the beach or familiar with the mussels that are in the ocean, how are these freshwater mussels different from those mussels?

Jack: Yeah, so the main difference that comes to mind. First is that they’re freshwater mussels, so they prefer to live in freshwater. They will not survive in any sort of marine water or brackish water. What's really interesting about freshwater mussels is they require a host fish to complete their life cycle.

Jack: Unlike marine bi-valves, where they do not require a host fish. And also, you'll see a lot of the marine bivalves growing on rocks and stuff. And then you see, thistle threads to hold on to that. Freshwater mussels don't do that. They have a fleshy foot, that comes out of their shell and anchors them into the bottom of a river or stream.

Rachel: Do they have pearls inside of them?

Jack: Yes, freshwater mussels have the ability to grow pearls. There was actually really big trawling industry with freshwater mussels, back in the late 1800s. And it kind of tapered out into the early 1900s. And the way that people would harvest them is they would essentially catch the mussels, open them up and take the pearls right out which unfortunately is lethal for the muscles.

Jack: So, it's kind of a really big problem as far as, which unfortunately is lethal for the mussels. So, it's kind of a really big, problem as far as, potential declines for them, due to the harvesting of them and, it immediately kills them to harvest the pearls. But it's really cool, how they actually grow, the pearls inside their shells.

Jack: If a type of sand or gravel, gets inside the shell, the mussels have a fleshy tissue that covers the inside of their shell, called the naker and when this piece of gravel gets inside there, the mussel, which uses their mantle to create their shell, they're constantly putting calcium carbonate all over their shell, and this kind of starts to create a protective layer around the gravel or sand that's in there and, eventually, it creates this new surface around it and you get a pearl from the, the constant, creation of shell that they're always trying to trying to make.

Matthew: That's fascinating. I was just going to say that I remember reading years ago about, the pearl rush because there was a huge pink pearl that was worth tens of thousands of dollars. Like a century or more back. I think it's New Jersey and everybody was a bit like an early gold rush but for pearls and they're just stripping everything out of the creeks around there in the hope of finding another one.

Emilie: Yeah, and Jack was describing the industry here in North America, but of course you can still buy freshwater pearls today and those are from, another species of freshwater mussel that's actually found in China. So, although we don't harvest the ones here in North America for pearls anymore, you still can get freshwater pearls.

Matthew: The other thing I remember about mussels is they have just such great names like monkeyface, sheepnose, cat’s paw, elk toes, spectaclecase, floater. I mean, how many species are there in the US, or does the diversity differ across the country in different regions?

Jack: Yeah, the names are really fun to learn about with freshwater mussels. Like some other ones are the fluted kenny shell or a Cumberland moccasinshell. They really kind of vary and are all over the place. But the diversity in North America for freshwater mussels is really high.

Jack: We actually have about one third of the total species of mussels globally here in North America. And, most of that species diversity is east of the Rocky Mountains, specifically in the Southeast is where there's a really high biodiversity hotspot for freshwater mussels.

Jack: I've actually done a lot of work in in the Southeast, with freshwater mussels, and I've had the pleasure of working with multiple species. And, it's really a spectacle to see, you know, sometimes up to 30 species of mussels in one spot in the river.

Jack: And then, here in the Western United States, we have, 3 genre of mussels. We have the western pearlshell, which is a, genus, Margaritifera. We have the western ridged mussel which is in the genus Gonidea and then we also have a group of multiple species that are kind of grouped together, Anodonta, which are our floater mussels.

Matthew: So, it seems like the Southeast is the real hot spot. And we just don't have that kind of diversity over here on the West.

Jack: Right, right.

Emilie: Yeah, that's correct. But what we lack in diversity in the Western US, we make up for in being in some of the most incredible places and wide distributions for our species. So, some of our mussels can be found from, you know, central British Columbia all the way down into California. So, a wide distribution compared to some of the species in the Eastern US.

Rachel: That's so interesting. So, Emily, when you first started describing freshwater mussels, you talked about how they filter water, which is one of the things that just makes them so important for cleaning our water systems, but are they also a food source. Were they considered a first food?

Emilie: Yeah, so freshwater mussels, most people, one of their first questions that they ask is if you can eat them. And yes, so freshwater mussels, like other types of marine mussels, they've been an important food source for people, you know, for time in memoriam.

Emilie: And so, we have these incredible records, shell middens in various places where we can see that evidence of past use by people. Mussels, what's wonderful about them is they're in these rivers and streams and they form what we call mussel beds and so this could be a large aggregation of mussels in healthy rivers, you could have tens of thousands of animals all growing in the same spot.

Emilie: And so, it’s really easy to go to one place, collect a lot of them and be able to feed your family. So, they were really important historically. For food purposes, also for other cultural purposes like for trade or, jewelry, or adornment. And unfortunately, because many of our waterways are much more polluted than they used to be, mussels are not a good source of food anymore for people, because they are filtering our rivers.

Emilie: So, they're doing this incredible resource of getting a lot of those pollutants out of our rivers. But in the process, it makes them less safe to eat. And they're also declining in many places. And so, many of the folks, many of the tribes that would have historically harvested those animals, they recognize that.

Emilie: And so, in doing conservation work is to try to improve populations, rather than continuing to harvest.

Matthew: Yeah, because I was thinking about that. Good. I don't eat fish anymore, but mariniere used to be in like a real fancy dish years ago. So, I know you can eat marine mussels, but I wasn't sure about freshwater.

Emilie: Yeah, and the other thing about fresh water mussels too, is if you envision eating an oyster for example, it's bathed in a briny delicious liquid all the time but our freshwater mussels they're living in the bottoms of our streams which are often muddier habitats. They're not going to taste as good as something coming from that briny ocean.

Matthew: So, Jack, you already mentioned that fish is involved with the life cycle of the, freshwater mussels and that's one of the things that makes them so different from marine mussels. I mean that seems really, quite an unusual and cool thing. I mean can you describe the life cycle in a little more detail for us?

Jack: Yeah, absolutely. So, like I said, freshwater mussels depend on a host fish to complete their life cycle. And, if you can kind of imagine, Emily mentioned these big aggregations of beds, you know, burrowed in the river bottom and there's males and females there.

Jack: The males will release their sperm into the water column and then the females will take in that sperm and fertilize their eggs, which then, gets turned into a larvae called glochidia and this larvae needs to be attached to a host fish in order for it to grow and continue.

Jack: And in order to track to host fish and get it attached. They've come up with these really like unique evolutionary ways to attract them. There's three different ways generally and one is broadcasting, the others is conglutenance, and the other is lures. The lures are really intricate ways of, extension of their mantle and it's this fleshy material that almost mimics a fish sometimes like a small fish.

Jack: When the host fish sees this, they think, oh, a free meal or a yummy meal and they come up and they'll take a bite. And as soon as they take a bite, the female released all their glochidia into the fish’s gills and on their scales and they latch on.

Jack: The glochidia will hang on for about three weeks or so. It varies between some species but they'll hang on and grow and then they turn into small juveniles and they, drop off of the fishes gills and scales, into the substrate, on the bottom of the river and, eventually grow into adult mussels.

Jack: And it's really kind of a lottery too. You know, them, falling off of the fish as far as them to succeed, because who knows where that fish is going and hopefully they're in the right habitat at the right time for those juveniles to be dropped off, and you know, make it and survive.

Emilie: Yeah and one of the interesting things about the lifecycle is that many of our mussel species require a specific host fish. Not any fish will work and also the mussel doesn't get to choose what fish is there. So, it really is a lottery of being able to have the glochidia actually attached to the right fish and then yeah, metamorphize and drop off in the right place.

Emilie: And another really interesting thing about this adaptation is that this is how mussels move around. These are very immobile animals. They spend almost their entire life in the bottom of the river and in that one spot where they landed. And so, for there to be connectivity between populations for healthy populations. They need to have healthy genetic diversity and to achieve that, mussels need to move around and meet each other and interact with each other. And so, fish are critical to that.

Emilie: Mussels can't swim, but fish can. So those fish can transport juvenile, transport, glochidia and drop off juveniles in new habitats. So, it's really fundamental, and another really interesting thing I think with mussels is as part of their life cycle, you know, filtering is how they're able to fertilize their eggs and so they actually have what are called, marsupial gills.

Emilie: So, they hold their eggs inside of their gills and that's where that happens. So, they're just really wildly different from other kinds of animals in the way that they reproduce. It's fascinating.

Rachel: Wow, that's amazing. I love these stories. Where different animals depend on each other. It just shows the web of life and everything is so interconnected. So, thank you for, describing that for us.

Emilie: Yeah, absolutely. And I'll just throw in one other interesting thing too is that, this is a parasitic relationship so that, glochidia is actually getting like its first bite of food comes from the fish, but fish really are not negatively impacted by mussels. It's a very minimal. It's almost like getting a scratch. In some cases, you know, their immune systems are boosted by having this temporary parasite.

Emilie: And then the benefits that mussels provide to those fish as, these big mussel beds that produce food and clean water, you know, totally outweighs this very minimal irritant that lasts for just a couple of weeks.

Matthew: Yeah, no, I was wondering. Whether the fish was harmed when you said they like latch onto the gills and I am thinking that doesn't seem so nice, but it seems like it's okay.

Matthew: I know that you do a lot of work and a bit like the animals themselves, the work you do on freshwater mussels is pretty low profile. You know, really important, but most people probably don't know about it. So, can you tell us more about the work that you do? Because you kind of form our like complete freshwater mussel team, between the two of you.

Emilie: Yeah, well, I guess I'll throw out the first pun, because no one's made a mussel joke yet, but I would say our work is pretty streamlined.

Emilie: So freshwater mussels are, you know, unfortunately they are among the most imperiled wildlife on the planet. We can little bit more about that. But it's the work that, for freshwater mussels is really critical because they are such an easily ignored group of species and yet they do provide so many important benefits to our aquatic ecosystems, improving water quality, helping to promote healthy fish populations.

Emilie: In some places, the drinking water that we get actually gets filtered through a freshwater mussel before it comes to you. And so, they're really very important. But, you know, more than 70% of the species just in North America are in peril to some degree. And so, Xerces has done a lot of work to raise the profile about freshwater mussels and to work with individuals and organizations, government, you know, whomever we can to really elevate their profile and also to make substantial changes to the way that we manage their populations or protect them.

Emilie: So, in the Western US, this is where we've done most of our work today because we do have a very small piece of the diversity pie out there. But these mussels are really important. They were once far more widespread in the Western US than they are now.

Emilie: Mussels have been eliminated from Southern California, from probably most of the state of Arizona, and parts of northern Mexico. So, part of what we've done has been to assess the status of populations. First, by looking at distribution across the Western US to see how it's changed over time. That work helped us to understand that several species are doing quite poorly, although they used to be found in many more water bodies than they are today, people really hadn't realized that they've been going missing.

Emilie: It's kind of a silent disappearance, and so as part of our work we petitioned for the listing of the Western ridge muscle. This is the species gandia that Jack mentioned before and that's a species that's declined from you know nearly half of its range so our work has been to help people find those populations so that they can be better managed.

Emilie: Jack and I conduct surveys in the rivers to actually help improve our knowledge of not just the distribution of those species, but how many animals are still out there in the different water bodies that we survey. And then we use that information to really engage with the public and with the people who manage land or water to help ensure that those mussels will continue to be there in the future.

Rachel: Yeah, I've been lucky enough to go out in the field with you, Emilie, and see how you survey these mussels. And this is a big part of, as you said, the work you've done, even understanding what the populations are at this point.

Rachel: And it was just really interesting because I just never thought about it, right? Like how do you count freshwater mussels underwater? And maybe now that I say it out loud, I'm like, and maybe it's pretty obvious, but, could you describe to our audience what are the different ways that you count freshwater mussels?

Emilie: Yeah, you know, it's an interesting, observation. Yes, it sure seems easy that if mussels are in a bed in the bottom of the river, you just go over and count them. But oh, if only it was that easy. If you can imagine trying to hold your position in a flowing river that may be a little deep in places you've got fish swimming by, you know, you're just trying to keep track sometimes, in a healthy bed with tens of thousands of animals that can be really tricky to count every single mussel.

Emilie: So, one of the projects we worked on has been with a number of other biologists and partners to develop a protocol for surveys. But you know, a typical field day for us, can really describe lots of different kinds of work. So, Jack and I were reflecting on one day last summer where we were conducting a survey in a local river where there were plans to do a bridge replacement project.

Emilie: So, mussels are very sensitive to changes to the aquatic environment, whether that's poor water quality or construction activity. So, they live not just in the bottom of the stream, but also in the banks. And so, if we need to excavate out part of a river bank so that we can reconstruct a bridge, that could affect mussels.

Emilie: So, on that particular day, Jack and I were in the water with some of the people involved in the project to replace the bridge, we were actually showing them how to look for mussels. It's like an Easter egg hunt. We were trying to find every single one we could. Collect them, put them in a bag and just move them upstream out of the area of impact. And so that's a lot of the work that we do is try to help people protect an individual mussel that, you know, could otherwise be harmed.

Emilie: But after we did that, we talked with them a lot about, the population in the river, near the bridge site. We relocated those mussels upstream with them and then after that we continued surveying the area so we put on things like dry suits and snorkel masks. In our rivers out here in the West, they can be quite cold even in the summer, you know, 60-degree water when you're laying flat counting mussels for two hours can get a little chilly.

Emilie: Jack had the benefit to work in some warmer areas back east. But yeah, dry suits, snorkel masks, face down, trying to count mussels. That's actually a lot of what we do. Yeah.

Rachel: I'm a big snorkeler, not so much in the rivers in the Pacific Northwest. But I just remember being amazed of like, oh yeah, that totally makes sense that you would go out in snorkel gear and count these freshwater mussels.

Rachel: But the water isn't super bright either, or super clear so you have these bright lights and, I just think the work that you do is, it's a lot harder than you would think. So, we appreciate the work that you're doing and going out there in those cold rivers counting those mussels.

Emilie: Yeah, you know, and I will say too it's amazing when you are face-down in these rivers you see incredible fish populations. You're seeing things from an entirely different perspective. Many of the really neat aquatic insects while we're out there, caddisflies and they're different cases. We see things like dragonflies, we come across fish that are very curious about what we're doing.

Jack: Yeah, and then, it can be kind of difficult as Emilie's been saying to try and find them and, you know, when we're looking for them just with a snorkel, we can be, unfortunately, a little visually biased and, we've been talking about these mussels, they are hanging out at the bottom and, they fall off their host fish and they can be really small and, when they're in their largest stage, they're microscopic.

Jack: And when they, develop into juveniles, they're, only a couple of millimeters long. And so, it can be really challenging to find those. So, sometimes we'll, also excavate for them. So we have these quarter meter squared quadrants that we’ll lay out in the stream and dig up the gravel with our hands and sift through it, like sifting for gold try and find the smaller ones because those can be really important to find when you're trying to figure out how healthy the population is because you know if we're looking and snorkeling just visually we're only finding the larger adults that have probably been there for a while and if they're not reproducing and there's not smaller populations then that's some signs of, there's something wrong going on.

Matthew: Yeah, that's such a totally different kind of invertebrate survey. The kind of classic image of running around in the sunshine with an insect net you know but no you're there scraping around in the muck, so that's awesome.

Matthew: I know, Emilie, you mentioned, that day when you were surveying for moving mussels related to bridge work and it's obviously working with someone else on that day. I mean, we have many collaborators in this work as well. I mean, obviously the work the two of you do is astonishingly impactful, but it is partly thanks to some of the other groups around and other organizations.

Emilie: Yeah, absolutely. You know, this is the thing about, working with species, particularly in fresh water, is that it's a resource that's shared by everyone and so no single individual or single group is going to have the impact that we need to have to improve conditions.

Emilie: We have to work together. Everyone needs to contribute to that. And so most of our work has been collaborative. We don't own land. We don't own rivers, and so we partner with organizations and private landowners and individuals who help us access these places. And help us to learn about projects that could impact mussels, work with them directly. So that could include, people like, biologists at other.

Emilie: Agencies like the state fish and wildlife agencies or the Fish and Wildlife Service that also includes some of the agencies that own substantial portions of public land out here in the Western US. So, you know, millions of acres in Oregon, for example, are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and we have partnered with them to conduct mussel surveys across those areas.

Emilie: And then there are organizations like watershed councils which are a really neat type of organization in Oregon in particular where each of our watersheds has a group of people dedicated to caring about it and, you know, doing work to improve conditions. Whether that's planting plants or helping to stabilize erosion or reduce runoff.

Emilie: And so, we've collaborated a lot with the folks who are doing that important habitat restoration work to make sure that freshwater mussels get included when we're thinking about improving habitat.

Matthew: And obviously with all of that, a lot of people are caring and stepping up and doing good things to help mussels. I mean overall, how are they doing? I mean should we be concerned about our freshwater mussel populations?

Jack: Yeah, the short answer is yes, they're the most imperiled group of animals, in the world right now. There are 30 species have gone extinct within the past, 200 years just in North America.

Emilie: Just in North American.

Jack: Yeah and, in North America as well, there's been, just in the past year, 8 species have been considered to have gone extinct as well and over 20 species in the past decade have been added to the Endangered Species list as either threatened or endangered.

Matthew: Wow, that's sobering. Yeah.

Emilie: Yeah, yeah, freshwater mussels and also freshwater snails. I know we're not talking about them today, but they're also among the most imperiled wildlife. So, I'll put in a plug for those guys too. You know, these, mollusks with gills in our freshwater have really been suffering.

Matthew: And do we know why? I've heard of some mussel kills in the rivers here in Pacific Northwest. I mean, I just don't know, is it, is it pollution? Is it toxins? Is it disease? There just seems to be so many possibilities.

Emilie: Yeah, I know, that's a great question. There are various reasons for sort of larger scale decline. So, Jack mentioned the pearl industry, which resulted in the harvest of, you know, millions of mussels. There's also a really active button industry in the Eastern US where they harvested mussels and would actually punch those pearlescent buttons out of an animal shell.

Emilie: So, there have been declines from harvest. There has been introduction of invasive species like, the zebra or quagga mussels that people hear about. Those are non-native. Bi-valves that actually are quite different from native freshwater mussels. Those species don't require host fish. So, they're actually able to reproduce rapidly and in incredibly large numbers. Those have impacted our native species as competition or directly harming them.

Emilie: There's also poor water quality that's impacted mussels and also habitat destruction because we use our rivers for many different purposes but a large one, historically, was for development of power sources or transportation and so those have had really long term impacts because they've changed the environment so much for those species.

Emilie: We're also facing other, more emerging issues so climate change can have really negative impacts on freshwater mussels. Warming water is not great for these species. They are adapted to certain water temperatures. Their host fish are also being impacted by climate change and by habitat destruction and many of these factors and they go hand in hand.

Emilie: But also, we've observed some really large scale, they’re called mass mortality events of freshwater mussels in some of our rivers and that's been an important area of collaborative research at Xerces the last few years. We've first hand observed mussel beds where half of an otherwise apparently healthy mussel bed dies over the course of just you know a month and we don't know the cause for that.

Emilie: So we've conducted quite a bit of sampling at those sites and collaborated with researchers at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study the potential viruses or bacteria that could be causing disease in mussels, but there's so much more work that needs to be done.

Emilie: You know, our mussels really are being impacted by everything that's happening to our water.

Matthew: They're quite literally downstream from everything that we do as well. So, it's not just the river that is the worry, it's everything in the watershed.

Emilie: Yeah, absolutely. I know Jack in his, graduate research was studying, freshwater mussels in a watershed in Tennessee and you know that's a place where there's been some land use change over time, right?

Jack: In some of the areas in Tennessee, there's been some effects from coal mining in the past and that's had some negative effects on a watershed scale. You know, trickling down into the rivers and, which causes acid mine drainage and, you have these high high, metal, or metal materials, you know, going into the water and causing some serious water quality issues, which, of course affects the mussels because they're filtering all that water out all the time.

Emilie: And it's especially concerning, you know, to lose our mussel populations. They can constitute a huge biomass in our rivers. I like to think of them as these are almost like reef systems in our rivers. They create a roughness in the river bottom that allows other animals to aggregate in these places. So, you know, if you find a mussel bed, you'll often find many aquatic insects grazing on top of them.

Emilie: See fish in great numbers because they're eating those aquatic insects. You know, they're really fundamental to that ecosystem. And when, we lose these animals, especially in large numbers, the rivers are really less well equipped to face other challenges. Without that filtering to improve water quality without, that nutrient cycling that mussels provide or the habitat stability, you know, the rest of the species that are reliant on our rivers are really going to suffer.

Rachel: Yeah, and hearing all this seems so sobering and sad. Feels almost hopeless. These animals that are often forgotten about, but they are so incredibly important for so many reasons. And so, my question to you is what can people do to help freshwater mussels?

Rachel: And I do want to give a shout-out to the donors and members for Xerces because I know that a lot of those funds fund the work that you both do. And so, we just wanted to thank people for contributing to our organization that allows us to do this. But other than that, what can folks do to help freshwater mussels in their in their backyard or in their community?

Emilie: Yeah, that's a great question, you know, many people have land that might border rivers or lakes. So, maintaining natural habitat along shorelines and banks is really valuable for mussels. That keeps the soil from eroding into the stream, ensures that mussel habitat is maintained.

Emilie: So even just, we talk a lot about planting pollinator friendly habitat, but if you have stream or river or lake habitat by your house, you can really help to protect that habitat for mussels as well. Reducing water use is also becoming increasingly important, especially in places in the arid West where water can be scarce throughout certain times of the year.

Emilie: We actually have seen examples of mussel beds that have dried up because the river dries up. And so, using less water is a really easy way to help ensure that mussels have one of their critical habitat needs.

Emilie: We also talk about supporting those organizations that are hoping to preserve or improve watersheds. So, we are huge fans of other organizations like watershed councils or land management agencies that are really working to protect streams from impacts. So definitely supporting, supporting those folks.

Emilie: And then one of the fun things too is that freshwater mussels, they can be hard to see, but they have a shell that often has a very pearlescent interior that can really stand out in streams and so people who come across freshwater mussel shells have the ability to contribute data that is really important to support our work.

Emilie: And so, if someone's out and has their phone, sees a mussel shell and, takes a picture, they can post something like that to iNaturalist and the data that people share through those public resources, we use that information to help support our own work. So, if you have a phone and you're out in the stream and you see something, please share.

Matthew: That's great. I love it when they're such simple things people can do.

Rachel: Well, we're going to end here on my favorite question and there's two of you. So, we get two stories this time. It's extra special. But what motivated or inspired both of you to study freshwater mussels?

Jack: Yeah, I guess I could go first. For me, I actually started working with, non-game fish in the past, and did that for a few years, and got roped into working on some projects with freshwater mussels and, I was honestly kind of dragging my feet at first, with it, but then once I got underwater and saw some of these amazing lures and the ways that their life history works and everything, I just kind of fell in love with them and I've been working with them ever since.

Jack: And they're just such cool animals and so fun to learn about and explore and there's so much unknown with them as well. So being a part of, the front lines of trying to answer this question is just really exciting.

Emilie: Yeah, I'll jump in too, you know, I always knew that I wanted to work with, animals. So, I was always interested in being a wildlife biologist. I thought that was so cool. And my very first research project in college was actually, to study the parasites of freshwater mussels and snails in a local stream.

Emilie: So, my very first undergraduate research was actually dissecting mussels, to see what was inside and I remember, actually seeing glochidia for the first time and thinking that is crazy. This mussel is full of tiny baby mussels that have these hooks on their larvae and that's going to attach to a fish. What a wild life cycle. So yeah, they're just so fascinating.

Emilie: You know, they're so easy to overlook, but as soon as you learn, even just the littlest thing about mussels, it's hard not to be interested to learn more. And as Jack said, there's so much we don't know about them. And so, it's really exciting to get to work in research and conservation on a group of species like this.

Matthew: I can't help wondering when you were an undergrad at the first site did you ever imagine you might actually end up working with mussels?

Emilie: Oh gosh, yeah. I mean that was a while ago at this point, but yeah, who would have thought that first project would lead to a whole career? It's very cool.

Rachel: Love that. Well, thank you both so much for sharing your stories and this has been such an informative podcast. I've learned so much and we just appreciate you taking the time to highlight this important animal. And yeah, we hope the viewers enjoyed it and we hope to have you back again. I feel like we could talk about this a lot more.

Emilie: Absolutely, anytime. Yeah, thank you.

Matthew: Yeah, yes, it's great. Thanks.

Rachel: Bug Banter is brought to you by the Xerces Society, a donor supported non-profit that works to protect insects and other invertebrates – the life that sustains us.

Rachel: If you’re already a donor, thank you so much. If you want to support our work go to xerces.org/donate. For information about this podcast and show notes go to xerces.org/bugbanter.