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2 The Outdoors: Unionids are the kidneys of rivers

Freshwater Mussels are critical to the health of our waterways.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Though we cannot live without fresh water, we have not always done our best to care for it. Fortunately, our lakes and rivers are teeming with life that helps keep our water healthy, and the family of freshwater Mussels known as Unionids are an important piece of that puzzle. 

Isabel Hannes is a UB Research Scientist studying mussels. 

"They are like the kidneys of our rivers. They improve water quality, they keep the water clean, they also provide habitat for other organisms in the creeks, so they are called river engineers because of that."

Credit: Isabel Hannes
Mussels are considered are considered to be one of North America's most endangered species.

These beneficial bi-valves have faced a steep decline over the past 200 years. Overharvesting for pearls and making buttons have driven a number of species to extinction. Hannes says that many more are barely hanging on. 

"In the United States, there are roughly 300 species. Of those, around 30, a little bit over 30 are extinct. So ten percent are extinct, gone forever. And of the remaining 65 percent, we have rough estimates, are critically endangered or threatened endangered, so they are disappearing very fast."

Efforts are being made to help bolster their populations, including research being conducted at the University at Buffalo. But it's a difficult process, and the first step is to restore the mussels' habitat. 

"Before we can restore Mussels into our waterways, we need to determine if the habitat is suitable. Because even though they are very good at removing contaminants and filtering, they do need a minimum of ecosystem health to survive."

Credit: Isabel Hannes
University at Buffalo researchers are working to restore Mussel populations.

The mussel's life cycle also complicates restoration. 

"A long lived, slow-reproducing animal." Explains Hannes. " It only reproduces once a year, so it takes years to come back. So if you remove a lot of them, don't give them time to repopulate, they're just going to go."

It's just another lesson in the importance of all life, even the small things we often don't see. " Not only Unionids, but also snails and other macroinvertebrates that sustain our rivers and our lakes, and we totally ignore them."


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