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Saving a Species: Ohio State reintroduces endangered mussels

October 21, 2013

Ohio State is working to replenish endangered mussels--a key to the health of Ohio's waterways. Researchers and students recently released 4,000 mussels into Big Darby Creek near Columbus.

Ohio State researchers and students are tagging and relocating 4,000 endangered clubshell and riffleshell mussels back into Big Darby Creek, west of Columbus.

It’s the largest release of endangered mussels to date in Ohio--and it's possible because of Ohio State's research prowess in the field. G. Thomas Watters, curator of Ohio State’s Division of Molluscs, is one of the nation’s top mussel experts, and the division owns the world's largest collection of freshwater mussels.

At the Columbus Zoo’s mussels facility on the Scioto River, volunteers from throughout the city tag each mussel with a rice-grain-sized transponder--an electronic tracing device--glued to the shell with underwater epoxy. Researchers use a handheld scanner to track more than 10,000 mussels released in the project's past six years.

“We just can’t throw 10,000 mussels out and walk away,” Watters says. “This enables us to find them again electronically if they burrow into the substrate.” (The substrate is a muddy layer beneath the water.)

The mussels were collected from under a Pennsylvania bridge about to be demolished. Because the species had previously lived in the Big Darby Creek, researchers determined the mussels were likely to thrive here.

“Mussels are the early warning system to our freshwater health,” Watters says. “If we start to see these animals dying off for reasons we can’t put our fingers on, that should send up a red flag that maybe there’s something going on here that we need to investigate.”

Ieva Roznere, a grad student in Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, is working on several research projects with common mussels, as well as the endangered species release.

“I think it’s a really neat experience,” Roznere says. “I particularly like the fact that we work with so many partners. It’s great to see all these groups to come together and work for a common purpose.”

Ohio State has partnered with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks system to release the threatened invertebrates back into Ohio waters.

“I’m not aware of any program anywhere else that has moved that many individuals of federally endangered species,” says Angela Boyer, endangered species coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “Ohio State has really helped this program succeed. Without the students and staff here, we never could do this project.”