Our rainbow trout and the dinosaur fish, the pallid sturgeon, work gets us a lot of attention. People come and visit the hatchery from all over – including many that are from far away countries. But some of our best work is with some inconspicuous critters that look more like rocks than animals. Freshwater mussels rarely move and they eat by filtering the water of lakes, rivers, creeks and ponds for tiny food particles. They don't make any sounds or display colorful plumage, and they even reproduce without moving. But in our Midwest Region, and throughout North America, these rock-like creatures are sending an urgent message.

Our rainbow trout and the dinosaur fish, the pallid sturgeon, work gets us a lot of attention. People come and visit the hatchery from all over – including many that are from far away countries. But some of our best work is with some inconspicuous critters that look more like rocks than animals. Freshwater mussels rarely move and they eat by filtering the water of lakes, rivers, creeks and ponds for tiny food particles. They don’t make any sounds or display colorful plumage, and they even reproduce without moving. But in our Midwest Region, and throughout North America, these rock-like creatures are sending an urgent message.
North America has the highest diversity of these interesting animals. Currently, however, in the Midwest more than half of the 78 known species are imperiled to various degrees. No other group of animals in the Midwest is in such grave jeopardy. To put this in perspective, The Nature Conservancy reports that about 70 percent of mussels in North America are extinct or imperiled, compared to less than 20 percent of mammalian or bird species.
Many of these mussel species have pretty imaginative names. Some are named by a physical characteristic seen on their shells (or valves): Three horn wartyback, pimpleback, three ridge, and spike. Others have been named because of what they resemble: rabbitsfoot, deer toe, butterfly, round pigtoe, monkey face, kidneyshell and pistol grip. And honestly, some are describing items we might also be familiar with, and yet the resemblance is a bit hard to find. But they are still fascinating animals and they are important in our aquatic ecosystems.
Some mollusks have a color associated with them as well. Pink mucket, purple wartyback and pink heelsplitter describe not the colors of the outer shell (or periostracum) but rather the smooth inner surface that lies next to the soft body of the animal. This is the famous material (called nacre) that forms pearls, and different mollusks produce different qualities and colors of it. The heelsplitter is named for a sharp projection on the hinge side of the shell that can stick up above the surface of the sand when the rest of the shell is buried. It doesn’t take much to imagine the circumstances that led to its naming!
The others have less intuitive titles. The giant floater is indeed a large mussel. But it was named for when it died, as its large flesh would rot and produce gas inside the shell of a deceased animal – causing the whole thing to float in the water. Overall, these shelled animals are on decline and the hatchery is trying to work its magic to help reverse that trend. They all filter water to obtain their nutrition, and this makes them very susceptible to negative changes in the water quality. As such, scientists use mussels as indicators of aquatic ecosystem health. The fact that so many mussels are imperiled in the Midwest shows that there have been significant, long-term changes to our lakes and waterways. Hopefully our work and your support will turn this troubling trend around.

Bruce Hallman writes a column for the Neosho Daily News.