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Aquarium Flexes its Mussels
during Mussel Release

CHATTANOOGA (Sept. 11, 2001) - On Sept. 17 the Tennessee Aquarium's research arm flexes its mussels by replenishing the depleted Conasauga River with a new slew of imperiled mussels.

"Mussels are to rivers what canaries once were to coal mines," said Dr. Paul Johnson, research scientist for the Tennessee Aquarium's Southeast Aquatic Research Institute (SARI). "These animals live in the bottom of rivers and gather nutrients from the water by filter feeding, and when they begin to disappear, they're telling us that something is wrong."

In the last century, more than 72 species of freshwater mollusks were driven to extinction in the Southeast due to habitat destruction, and more than 50 percent of the remaining species are considered imperiled. Freshwater snails and mussels are the most imperiled group of animals in the United States, Johnson added. The Tennessee River and Mobile River basins are the center of global distribution for these creatures.

The Sept. 17 release of more than 500 juvenile finelined pocketbook, scientific name Lampsilis altilis, mussels is the second in a series of releases of artificially propagated mussels in the Conasauga River basin. Earlier this year SARI scientist's released about 50 Alabama moccasinshell's, scientific name Medionidus acutissimus, into a tributary of the Conasauga River. The Conasauga River begins on U.S. Forest Service property in both Tennessee and Georgia. The river turns south and flow past Dalton, Georgia, before joining with the Coosawattee River at Calhoun to form the Oostanaula River. The Oostanaula River meets the Etowah River in Rome, Georgia to form the Coosa River.

Because the distribution of the finelined pocketbook is restricted to the Coosa River drainage, the species is currently listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Artificial augmentation of existing populations of this mussel species and others are part of a current recovery strategy for several mussel species in the upper Coosa River basin.

In addition to their sensitivity to habitat and water quality changes, freshwater mussel larvae, must infect a fish in order to complete their develop. A female mussel attracts a host fish by using a "lure" or display, and the interested fish is infected with dozens of tiny mussel larvae released by the adult mussel, Johnson explained. These tiny larvae, called "glochidia," are about half the diameter of a straight pin, and usually attach and imbed themselves in the gills of the host fish. The glochidia larvae remain attached for about a month before they transform into juvenile mussels and fall off of the gill. Many species of mussels can only infect a particular species, or small suite of fish species, and attachment to the wrong host fish will mean death for the larvae.

Artificial propagation of freshwater mussels by SARI scientists involves the collection of a fertile female mussel, harvesting her ripe larvae and directly infecting an appropriate fish. Several weeks later, juvenile mussels are harvested as they are released from the fish. When the host fish has completed shedding the juvenile mussels, the fish quickly recovers unharmed from the experience. The finelined pocketbook is one of 10 mussel species targeted by SARI, USFWS, and The Nature Conservancy for artificial augmentation efforts in the Conasauga River and other upper Coosa River basin tributaries.

These mussel releases into the Conasauga River are part of a coordinated watershed restoration project led by the Conasauga River Alliance. To learn more about this watershed restoration project, contact the Alliance Coordinator, Rick Guffy in Crandell, Georgia at (706) 695-3950.

Directions to the mussel release:

From US 411 drive in Polk County TN .7 miles north of Conasauga, TN or 1.2 miles south of the TN 313intersection turn east on Ball Play Road (look for the Texaco gas station on the west side of 411). From Ball Park Road travel 2.3 miles to the intersection with Willis Springs Road. Turn right on Willis springs Road and travel 1.24 east miles to Willis Springs (circled). The pavement ends at Willis Springs (look for the white gate on your left after crossing a small creek) but the gravel road continues onto the US Forest Service Cohutta Management area. The release team will meet here at approximately 11:30 am, and make final arrangements for the mussel release.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. Built with private contributions, this non-profit educational organization is dedicated to the understanding, conservation and celebration of aquatic habitats. Admission is $12.95 per adult and $6.95 per child, ages 3-12. Advance tickets may be purchased online at www.tnaqua.org or by phone at 1-800-262-0695. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. To join or for program and trip information, call 267-FISH. The Aquarium is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas and is accessible to people with disabilities.

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