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Freshwater mussel research underway in the Guadalupe River

Sara  Sneath By Sara Sneath

Dec. 10, 2016 at 10:15 p.m.

Texas A&M researchers from left, Kelsey Marshall, Megan Hess, Eric Tsakiris and Jennifer Morton sort through freshwater mussels found in the Guadalupe River. The group collected state threatened mussels to study their basic life functions.

Texas A&M researchers from left, Kelsey Marshall, Megan Hess, Eric Tsakiris and Jennifer Morton sort through freshwater mussels found in the Guadalupe River. The group collected state threatened mussels to study their basic life functions.   Angela Piazza for The Victoria Advocate

HOCHHEIM - Researchers dove into the cold waters of the Guadalupe River in search of rare species of freshwater mussels.

Dressed in wetsuits, they fought the current with exaggerated steps, like astronauts walking on the moon.

The green water made the search largely tactile. As they dug their fingers into the rocky river bottom, their black water socks bobbed above the water's surface.

There's very little known about native freshwater mussels, other than that many species are diminishing in numbers. In 2009, 15 species were listed as state-threatened. And 12 are being considered for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Researchers with Texas A&M's Institute of Renewable Natural Resources hope to learn more about the species' distribution and life history. Their findings will likely influence water management in the state because it's thought the species' declines are a result of water pollution and water withdraw.

There's an allure to being on the forefront of research about a species, said Jennifer Morton, a graduate research assistant with the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources Mussel Research Group.

"Mussels are interesting because there are just so many knowledge gaps, so much information that hasn't been looked into," she said. "I really just enjoy being on the pioneering end of that."

Morton is studying the upper heat tolerance of mussels. Her research could be applied during drought conditions when increased demand for water means less water is released from reservoirs upstream.

She's also studying how long mussels can be stranded out of water. The implication being to prescribe for minimal river flows for conservation of mussels and other wildlife.

Doing research that could be applied within the next two to five years is one reason why research scientist Charles Randklev enjoys his job with Texas A&M's Institute of Renewable Natural Resources Mussel Research Group.

"My research is relevant," he said. "It's used by managers to basically inform how aquatic resources, whether they're freshwater mussels or what have you, are managed and taken care of."

On a cool day in November, researchers from Randklev's lab sorted the mussels they dug up from a bend in the river into mounds. Graduate research assistant Jack Dudding gently pried open the mussels' shells and took samples of their gonadal fluid with a needle.

Dudding is trying to figure out when three mussel species mate. From the team's trip, he learned the mussels are not spawning in November. His research could be used in the future to help breed and increase the numbers of mussels.

Despite the cold water and occasional nibble from aquatic insects, the team appeared happy to be working outdoors. And part of their hope is to preserve that experience for future generations, Randklev said.

"I think what's often missed here is endangered species, or just wildlife in general, that's the natural heritage of all Texans," he said. "So, I think it's important for us to be good stewards of that heritage so that our children and grandchildren have a chance to experience that."


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