By Jennifer Archambault, Ph.D. – Endangered Species Biologist and Aquatic Ecosystem Specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The waters of northeastern North Carolina are home to many special animals, from the mighty Atlantic Sturgeon – a large, prehistoric fish with armored plates – to the mini Chowanoke Crayfish, a small crustacean found only in the Chowan and lower Roanoke drainages. In the western portions of Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s service area (Halifax County), the Tar River supports rare species like the Carolina Madtom – a tiny catfish; the Neuse River Waterdog – a large, aquatic salamander with frilly external gills, and the Tar River Spinymussel – a freshwater bivalve, a kind of cousin to the oyster. These three species are federally protected, and the only place on Earth that they occur is eastern North Carolina!
Needless to say, forest landowners in this part of the state have a unique opportunity – and responsibility – to nurture the ecosystem that is home to these amazing creatures. By implementing sustainable forest management practices and programs, woodland owners can ensure that this part of North Carolina remains a special place that provides a home for rare and common species alike.
Lots of freshwater mussels in addition to the Tar River Spinymussel make their home in these rivers, such as the Eastern Elliptio, Tidewater Mucket and Roanoke Slabshell. Healthy mussel populations are essential to river systems because they help clean the water by removing bacteria, excess nutrients and other particles or chemicals. Each mussel can filter several gallons of water per day – imagine the collective filtration power in a river full of mussels! In addition to supporting thriving ecosystems, clean rivers mean better fishing, recreation and natural spaces for everyone to enjoy.
Healthy mussel populations are essential to river systems because they help clean the water by removing bacteria, excess nutrients and other particles or chemicals.
These secretive creatures live for decades at the river bottom, where they’re also really good at fishing! Native freshwater mussels need a fish to complete their life cycle and to help them disperse to new habitats. Some mussel mothers release their larvae in mucus strings in attempt to target their host fishes. Others create very specialized lures that mimic minnows or bugs that their host fishes like to eat, and they go fishing by waving their lure in the water! When a fish tries to eat the fake meal, they end up with some hitchhikers on their gills or fins, where the mussel larvae undergo metamorphosis. After a few weeks and they have formed organs and a foot, the process is complete and the baby mussels drop into the river, leaving the fish unharmed.
Mussels can make clean water, but they also need clean water. They are sensitive to pollution, such as pesticides and sedimentation. People can help mussels and other river fauna with good land management practices that prevent erosion and pollution, such as leaving trees and other natural vegetation along streams, using soil conservation techniques, and keeping chemicals away from the water. Good stewardship helps rare species to recover, keeps the common species thriving, and contributes to healthy ecosystems that support our communities.
Contact me with questions about aquatic ecosystems or protected species email@example.com or learn more about freshwater mussels at the links below.
- Twitter thread with mussel video and cartoons illustrating their cleaning and fishing superpowers
- Unio Gallery with videos and photos of mussel lures
- NC Wildlife Resources Commission website on freshwater mussels
- US Fish and Wildlife Service listed freshwater mussels
- USFWS protects the Atlantic Pigtoe mussel as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act