Rare mussels released into Big Darby

Messenger photos by Jeff Pfeil

These are northern riffleshell mussels. Each mussel was tagged with an electronic device that will allow researchers to monitor them after they were released into the Big Darby Creek on June 25. The mussel is an endangered species.

Jen Cramer from the Ohio State University Museum of Biological Diversity releases mussels into the Darby Creek. The mussels were placed at two per square meter into the creek.
Mac Albin (left) , an aquatic specialist with the Franklin County Metro Parks system, explains how the mussels will be released. A total of 1,700 mussels were released into the Creek on Wednesday morning in different locations along the creek. The first release included 500 mussels each placed individually.

Endangered species can now call the Big Darby Creek home.

On June 25-26, over 1,700 northern riffleshell mussels were released into the creek near the Cedar Ridge entrance to Battelle-Darby Metro Park just east of West Jefferson. It was the largest mass species release in the state.

The mussels were recently gathered from the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania, and then kept in a laboratory to save the invertebrate from extinction. Each mussel was fitted with radio transmitters designed to monitor their distribution. In 2007, 43 mussels were released into the Big Darby Creek. In 2006, dozens of juvenile mussels were placed in the waterway.

The northern riffleshell mussel is a state and federal endangered species. Its population has suffered due to habitat loss and pollution.

“It is a novel species,” said Dr. Thomas Watters, curator of mollusks in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organism Biology for The Ohio State University. “It does really neat things.”

Watters explained that the mussel is part of the ecosystem and they monitor water quality.

“If they start to die, it is a good indication that something is happening with the water system,” he noted.

Watters said he believes the species has been endangered since the 1980s.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the northern riffleshell mussel is found in a wide variety of streams. It buries itself in firmly packed sand or gravel, but leaves its feeding siphons exposed. They can live up to 50 years.

The species has become endangered due to flooding in most of its habitat. Flooding reduces the sand and gravel. It also distributes the fish. Erosion from strip mining, logging or farming can block the animal’s feeding siphon, which could suffocate it. The pollution threats are thought to come from agriculture and industrial runoff.

Watters explained that this is the reason why they want to relocate the mussels to the Big Darby Creek.

“The Darby offers protection,” he said.

Ten local jurisdictions are part of the Darby Accord. This is an effort to restrict development near the Big Darby and protect the creek. If the waterway is protected from excess pollution and waste runoff, the hope is that the creature will thrive.

The northern riffleshell mussel can be found in only one other Ohio river, Fish Creek in Williams County.

Cooperators on the project include the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, The Ohio State University, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Funding for the conservation effort comes from the Wildlife Diversity and Endangered Species Fund. For information on how to help the mussel, go to wildohio.com.

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