Tag Archives: southwest virginia

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.

Protecting Virginia’s waters

Holding mussels

Endangered mussels bound for the Powell River. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

“What do we use the river for?” Mike Pinder, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist, asked a group of elementary students standing knee-deep in southwestern Virginia’s Clinch River.

“Swimming and fishing!” one boy answered enthusiastically.

Leading students into river.

Biologist Mike Pinder leads students into the Clinch River. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

“What animal helps keep it clean?” Pinder asked.

The boy proudly shared his new knowledge: “Mussels!”

Pinder then began helping students place freshwater mussels in the sand and gravel of the Clinch River.

In September 2010, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries – with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), these elementary students, and other volunteers – released more than 6,500 mussels of seven species, including the federally endangered oyster mussel (Epioblasma capsaeformis).

Check out other stories of endangered plant and animal conservation in the Northeast – We’re sharing them throughout the year!

This was a monumental moment in freshwater mussel conservation, as this was the largest release of endangered mussels to date in the eastern U.S. – Finish reading the story!

Visit a stream near your house. Find any freshwater mussels?
(Leave your comment below)

UPDATE: We’ve got great news for another endangered species in Virginia! Biologists with the Center for Conservation Biology documented a modern day high of 53 red-cockaded woodpeckers during the winter population survey at The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve. This marks the highest population number in Virginia since the 1980s when red-cockaded woodpeckers began their rapid decline! Learn more.

Giving mussels a boost in Tenn.’s Powell River

Today you’re hearing from Jess Jones, a restoration biologist with the Service’s Virginia Field Office, on releasing the largest group of three endangered mussels in the Powell River. This post is part of a series running all month on freshwater mussels, highlighting their importance to the Northeast landscape and the concerted efforts underway to ensure their future in our waters.

Biologist Jess Jones distributes mussels. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

Biologist Jess Jones distributes mussels. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

Every once in a while everything just works out. 

Today was such a day — cool and sunny, an early fall afternoon on the Powell River in northeastern Tennessee, where biologists and students worked together to release endangered mussels. Heavy rains occurred the week before, but the water level dropped just in time to stock them in the river, 5,500 oyster mussels (Epioblasma capsaeformis), 1,000 Cumberlandian combshells (Epioblasma brevidens), and 27 snuffbox (Epioblasma triquetra). The young mussels were 1-2 years old and about 20-30 mm long.

A handful of oyster and combshell mussels ready for release. Credit: USFWS

A handful of oyster and combshell mussels ready for release. Credit: USFWS

Students, staff and faculty from Virginia Tech and nearby Lincoln Memorial University put the mussels at four sites spanning about a six-mile section of the river. The release sites were shallow and scenic, where people waded around in participation. They were joined by biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who helped coordinate the event.

Staff and students from Virginia Tech at the release site finding mussels with PIT tags, electronic tags with numbers and letters that identify individual mussels. Credit: USFWS

Staff and students from Virginia Tech at the release site finding mussels with PIT tags, electronic tags with numbers and letters that identify individual mussels. Credit: USFWS

This event represented the largest recovery effort to date for these species in the river – part of a larger effort involving Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to establish multiple populations throughout the upper Tennessee River watershed. 

University partners played an integral role. The mussels were propagated and reared at Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center in Blacksburg, and students from Lincoln Memorial helped identify release sites by mapping mussel habitat in the river using GIS technology. The eventual goal is to restore self-sustaining populations and de-list each species.

Hear Jess Jones talk about this mussel restoration project. Video by Lincoln Memorial University.

The Powell River is a headwater tributary of the Tennessee River and is among the most biologically diverse rivers in the country. Nearly 100 fish species and 35 mussel species occur in the Powell River. In fact, there are more mussel species found in the Powell River than in all of Europe.

The river contains 13 mussel species listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act. That is the second highest concentration of rare and endangered mussels anywhere in the country. Only the neighboring Clinch River contains more endangered mussels. 

Historically, severe pollution from upstream sources caused populations to decline. Currently, numerous water quality and habitat restoration projects are under way to improve riparian (riverside) conditions and reduce pollution sources. 

Tagged oyster and combshell mussels ready for release. Credit: USFWS

Tagged oyster and combshell mussels ready for release. Credit: USFWS

Water and habitat quality are improving, especially in the Tennessee portion of the river. Native mussels, even some of the endangered ones, are beginning to reproduce again. 

Detecting young mussels is an indicator that habitat is suitable for stocking hatchery-reared mussels. The mussels released today will be monitored annually for survival and growth to hopefully show they are doing well in their new home.

I am optimistic that by continuing to improve propagation technology for mussels, reducing and eliminating pollution sources, protecting habitat, and working with partners, recovery can be achieved for some species. 

Endangered female oyster mussel. Credit: USFWS

Endangered female oyster mussel. Credit: USFWS

We now have entered a decades-long period that will require active, hands-on population management to reduce extinction risk for many endangered mussels. Strong and lasting partnerships are essential. 

Today’s event was supported by the Service’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program, and the Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee field offices. Assistance from all involved was invaluable and greatly appreciated.

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program uses non-taxpayer funds to restore natural resources, such as freshwater mussels and their habitat, damaged by oil spills or hazardous substance releases. The program empowers specific federal, state and tribal representatives to determine the extent of injury, negotiate a settlement with responsible parties, engage the public in developing a restoration plan, and use the settlement funds to implement restoration efforts that ultimately benefit wildlife, the landscape and residents.

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