Tag Archives: Kentucky

The race to save the golden riffleshell

The golden riffleshell… sounds like an exotic treasure to us. It’s not gold or any fancy metal for that matter, but to some it is a treasure: to those that know the role of freshwater mussels in water quality and food webs, to those that know that some of the rarest mussels in the world live in the Appalachia, and to those biologists who discovered that this very freshwater mussel had clung to survival at the edge of extinction. Read the story below from Roberta Hylton and Jess Jones of our Southwest Virginia office and Leroy Koch of our Kentucky office.

 In late April 2016 a male golden riffleshell sits anchored in the sunlit stream bottom of Indian Creek near Cedar Bluff, VA. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

In late April 2016 a male golden riffleshell sits anchored in the sunlit stream bottom of Indian Creek near Cedar Bluff, VA. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

The quiet, pastoral landscape of remote southwestern Virginia was filled with sudden loud cheers when biologists managed to collect three golden riffleshell mussels from a stream near Cedar Bluff, Virginia.

This endangered species – which is listed as the tan riffleshell, despite a recent change in its scientific name – is now likely one of the rarest freshwater mussels on Earth.

It survives only in a single, small and isolated population in Indian Creek, a tributary to the Clinch River, and biologists racing to save it from extinction were thrilled to discover that not only were the golden riffleshell they had found all female, they were also carrying glochidia, which is what immature, young mussels are called.

A biologist uses a view bucket to peer beneath the water as he wades the shallow riffles of Indian Creek on a sunny spring day in search of female golden riffleshells. Credit: Roberta Hylton, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

A biologist uses a view bucket to peer beneath the water as he wades the shallow riffles of Indian Creek on a sunny spring day in search of female golden riffleshells. Credit: Roberta Hylton/USFWS

 The golden riffleshell is just one of the many freshwater mussels species that call the Clinch River watershed home. In fact, the region boasts one of the most diverse assemblages of these freshwater animals in the U.S. With fanciful names such as birdwing pearlymussel, Appalachian monkeyface, and rough rabbitsfoot, these animals provide a critical role, filtering and cleaning river water. They serve as “bio-indicators,” letting us know when something is not quite right in our waterways.

“We are lucky to have such incredible diversity right in our backyard and it is our responsibility to ensure its future,” says Sarah Colletti of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “If we can maintain healthy diverse freshwater mussel communities in our rivers, then we know we are doing a good job of protecting water quality too, and clean water is important to us all.”

Over the years, the golden riffleshell and a number of other freshwater mussel species found in the Clinch River watershed have dwindled to precariously low numbers, and locating individuals has become highly problematic. Today, biologists believe there are less than a few hundred golden riffleshell left in a single stretch of stream.

Biologists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have recognized for years now that the golden riffleshell and other freshwater mussels throughout the Upper Tennessee River Basin face incredible challenges to their survival. Though government regulations have brought about water quality improvements, freshwater mussels and fish are harmed wherever streams are affected by poor land use practices, mining, industrial spills, climate change, invasive species and other factors.

Golden riffleshell “glochidia”, or tiny immature young, reveal themselves with the aid of a microscope. Credit Monte McGregor, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Golden riffleshell “glochidia”, or tiny immature young, reveal themselves with the aid of a microscope. Credit: Monte McGregor, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

Biologists with our agency, with Kentucky and Virginia, Virginia Tech, and The Nature Conservancy worked cooperatively and quickly this past March to extract the glochidia and return the females unharmed back to Indian Creek. The glochidia were transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation where scientists are using new techniques in an attempt to grow the species in captivity and help increase its population.

The golden riffleshell is on the brink of extinction. Still, conservationists hope that if we work hard and fast, we just may have a chance to save it.

While habitat conservation, restoration of water quality, and educating the public about the values of aquatic ecosystems are important components of recovery efforts, for the golden riffleshell, culturing (i.e., growing) this species in the laboratory is likely this species’ last best hope. Culturing mussels isn’t easy because the life cycle of a freshwater mussel is one of the most complex in the animal world.

In the past, biologists have used a variety of conventional techniques to propagate golden riffleshell, but success has been limited as numbers in the wild have continued to decline. However, efforts led by Monte McGregor of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Center for Mollusk Conservation to refine lab techniques for culturing mussels in serum extracted from the blood of rabbits offered new hope for saving the golden riffleshell. McGregor and his staff have been successful in propagating and culturing the tan riffleshell, which is closely related to the golden riffleshell, from the Cumberland River system in Kentucky. If the success using rabbit serum can be repeated for the golden riffleshell, biologists just might be able to accomplish their mission to save this small aquatic animal.

biologist uses a syringe to extract the tiny immature young from an adult golden riffleshell female so they can be transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation, cultured with a technique using rabbit serum, and reared to a larger size for reintroduction back into the wild. Credit Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Biologist uses a syringe to extract the tiny immature young from an adult golden riffleshell female so they can be transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation, cultured with a technique using rabbit serum, and reared to a larger size for reintroduction back into the wild. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The determination of biologists who are partnering across state lines in Virginia and Kentucky is paying off.

From the three gravid (with young mussels) female golden riffleshell collected in Virginia in March, the Kentucky Center for Mollusk Conservation has successfully used rabbit serum to rear about 12,000 glochidia to the juvenile stage.

While there may be some mortality, this first batch of mussels appear to be among the healthiest ever cultured by McGregor and we expect a few thousand will make it to larger sizes suitable for reintroduction into the wild. Although some of the young mussels will remain at the Kentucky facility, by mid to late summer of this year, many will be transported to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion, Virginia, and Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center in Blacksburg, Virginia, to allow for continuous monitoring and growth.

Eventually, if all goes well, the young golden riffleshells will be released back into the wild. The road ahead may be a long one, but the success of propagating golden riffleshell to date has provided new hope in the race to save this species.

This story originally appeared on our website and in our Endangered Species Bulletin Summer 2016 edition.

Endangered juvenile pink mucket pearlymussels from 2014. This freshwater mussel is found in just two of the states in our Northeast Region - West Virginia and Virginia. Credit: USFWS

Returning freshwater mussels to Central Appalachia

Endangered juvenile pink mucket pearlymussels from 2014. This freshwater mussel is found in just two of the states in our Northeast Region - West Virginia and Virginia. Credit: USFWS

Endangered juvenile pink mucket pearlymussels tagged and ready for release in the Ohio River! This freshwater mussel is found in just two of the states in our Northeast Region – West Virginia and Virginia. Photo courtesy of Janet Clayton, WVDNR

You're hearing from Anne Post, chief librarian stationed at the National Conservation Training Center. She is passionate about photography and film, and loves any possible creative opportunity that presents itself. She is really good at bringing order to chaos, i.e., her library hat.

This post is coming from Anne Post, chief librarian duty stationed at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV. She is passionate about photography and film, and loves any possible creative opportunity that presents itself. 

Refuge biologist Patty Morrison of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge (WV, PA, KY) and other endangered freshwater mussel proponents are celebrating remarkable landscape-level recovery efforts made possible by exemplary partnership between our agency, state, university and private partners. The details of this steady recovery effort are described in the recently published 2014 permit report.

Moving the needle on endangered mussel recovery takes many years and the cooperation of numerous partners,” Patty said. “Each year we mark progress forward in incremental steps through re-introductions, propagation of juvenile mussels in captivity, stocking and monitoring.”

Work to propagate, collect, stock and monitor these endangered mussels continues in the face of getting clobbered by invasive zebra mussels species that crowd out and destroy native mussel populations. Check it out:

  • Purple cat’s paw pearly mussel:  the second ever successful captive propagation of juvenile purple cat’s paw pearly mussel, and continued survival and growth of the 2013 juveniles in captivity;
  • Clubshell mussels:  the stocking of additional adult clubshell mussels to the mainstream Ohio River and Middle Island Creek in West Virginia, and continued growth of juveniles;
  • Pink mucket pearly mussels:  the second ever stocking of captive-raised juvenile pink muckets to the mainstem Ohio River in West Virginia, and successful detection of last year’s stocked juveniles; and
  • Sheepnose mussel:  the first ever successful transformation of juvenile sheepnose in cell culture media (without using a fish host).
Tagged fanshell freshwater mussel and snail friend at the bottom of the Ohio River. Photo courtesy of Janet Clayton, WVDNR

Tagged fanshell freshwater mussel and snail friend at the bottom of the Ohio River. Photo courtesy of Janet Clayton, WVDNR

Successful restoration of some endangered mussel populations is thanks to some pretty sensational multi-regional, multi-program cooperation across our agency and stellar conservation partnerships with the WV Department of Natural Resources, Ohio State University, Tennessee Tech University, the Columbus Zoo Freshwater Mussel Conservation and Research CenterIllinois Department of Natural ResourcesIllinois Natural History Survey, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat CommissionKY Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources and other organizations.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diver Doug Canfield splashes into the water in preparation for mussel work! Credit: USFWS

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diver Doug Canfield splashes into the water in preparation for mussel work! Credit: USFWS

As Janet Clayton, wildlife diversity biologist and mussel project leader for the West Virginia DNR chimed in to say: “West Virginia has nine federally endangered mussel species. Some of the populations are listed within the recovery plans requiring restoration for de-listing. West Virginia is proud to be working with our federal and state partners in the restoration efforts for these species as it is only through the efforts of many that recovery can be accomplished.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diver Matt Patterson prepares to place tagged juvenile northern riffleshell mussels in the Allegheny River at East Brady. The young riffleshells — an endangered species — were bred in a fish hatchery from adult stock that biologists rescued before a bridge demolition. Photo courtesy of Janet Butler, WVDNR

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diver Matt Patterson prepares to place tagged juvenile northern riffleshell mussels in the Allegheny River at East Brady. The young riffleshells — an endangered species — were bred in a fish hatchery from adult stock that biologists rescued before a bridge demolition. Credit: USFWS

And…let’s not forget the divers from the our agency and WV DNR that helped restock the Ohio River, as well as other teams that collected clubshells from the Allegheny River as part of that very cool recovery project. Snorkels affixed, they dove and stocked the rivers to help guarantee the slow but steady climb to recovery.

Read more about these efforts:

My life after the internship: Adam McNeil

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge 2012

This year, we checked in with some of our past interns to find out what came next after their internship ended. Did they stay with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or land another sweet job? We hope they put those skills to good use! Look out for these stories to find out about their life after the internship. Today, meet Adam McNeil. Below, find out where he started with us and where he is now.

I’m a history student from Winter Park, Florida and I attend Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. My prior role with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was as an environmental education and interpretive intern at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, through the Career Discovery Internship Program in the summer of 2012. Last summer, I went through the National Park Service Academy to become an interpretive intern at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky. This summer, I am the museum intern through the Cultural Resources Diversity Internship Program at Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts. Though my last two summers have not been with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the foundation for my service and where I have come in the past few years all began with the internship at Chincoteague and I am a better man from my experiences. Who knows, I may come back and work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after graduation!

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace 2013

Me at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in Kentucky.

Lowell National Historical Park putting up exhibit 2014

At Lowell National Historic Park in Massachusetts, I work on preservation and cultural resources work.