Mussels: Flexing for Water Quality

Arkansas brokenray (Lampsilis reeveiana) and Flutedshell (Lasmigonia costata) mussels
Arkansas brokenray (Lampsilis reeveiana) and Flutedshell (Lasmigonia costata) mussels

Texas Parks & Wildlife

Often mistaken for rocks or seashells, mussels are fascinating animals that live on the bottom of the river. Mussels filter their food - algae, bacteria, and other tiny aquatic life - from the river by pumping water through their gills. Through filter feeding, mussels clean up the river and improve its water quality. However, pollutants can gather in their bodies through this process, affecting their health and longevity. Studies have shown that mussels are
highly sensitive to ammonia and nitrates, common chemicals that pollute waterways. Continued water pollution and habitat changes have caused mussels to become one of the most rapidly declining animal groups in the United States. Of nearly 300 species of mussels native to North America, more than 70 percent are considered imperiled (federally vulnerable, threatened, or endangered) and around 35 are presumed extinct. Healthy and diverse mussel populations indicate good water quality and ecosystem health. When mussel populations are in decline, this can indicate potential ecological concerns for other fish and wildlife, and even people.
Mussel Silo
A scientist wearing goggles, a snorkel, and a black wetsuit swims underwater and inspects a round, camouflaged mussel silo that is hidden among rocks on the bottom of the river.


The United States Geological Survey, Arkansas State University, and the National Park Service are conducting mussel surveys on the Buffalo River. By comparing population numbers at different times and in different conditions, researchers can better understand the mussels’ preferred habitat and what can be done to support their long term protection. Part of this project includes a toxicity study that documents the response of living mussels as they are exposed to different environmental conditions . For this study, young mussels are put into concrete devices known as “silos” at five different sites on the river, where their growth and survival are recorded over time. Since this project began, several of the mussel silos have been tampered with or stolen from the river. As you’re exploring your public lands, please support scientific study by leaving research equipment alone. Collected data from these projects will determine population patterns of the mussels in the Buffalo River, allowing researchers to see how different parts of their habitat and exposure to pollution may affect their ability to survive.

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Part of a series of articles titled Buffalo National River Science Spotlights.

Buffalo National River

Last updated: August 13, 2021