In Texas, you may hear the world “mussel” and think “invasive species.” While it’s true there are some freshwater mussel species that are invasive to our Texas waters and native animals, there are several mussel species that are threatened, endangered and even now extinct. This massive decline in populations has conservationists and researchers concerned and taking swift action to better understand this invertebrate species and develop protocols and techniques to conserve them.
Mussels are invertebrates, which means that these animals have no spine. Although they may not look like the animals you might see here at the Zoo – those with paws, tails or scales – these creatures have a very special role in our ecosystems. They are natural filters! Mussels feed on algae, plankton and other plant matters and help purify our aquatic systems. They are also an important and nutritious food source for many native animals including racoons, otters, herons and egrets.
A dedicated mussel room has been outfitted in an off-exhibit area of the Zoo to house a variety of native mussels and appropriate host fish. The Zoo is currently examining five native freshwater mussels (Trinity pigtoe, yellow sandshell, fragile papershell, pistol grips and pimpleback) from the Trinity River Basin. Although these species are not threatened at this time, many will be in the near future. The Zoo and its partner, Texas A&M AgrilLife Dallas, are working together to establish husbandry parameters and ultimately, establish a breeding and reintroduction program for the threatened species.
Since these animals are filter feeders, water pollution is a main threat, as well as construction and the operation of dams and reservoirs in the Texas river systems. This exploratory conservation project is a first for the Zoo, so researchers and staff are learning along the way. So far, all mussels are settling in, growing, and thriving. In addition to the dedicated conservation room behind the scenes, the Zoo hopes to have these animals on exhibit in the future for guests to not only be able to observe these species up close, but to learn more about their counterparts in the wild and how our actions can conserve them. Stay tuned for more information and updates about the freshwater mussels and this conservation program!