(CN) — One of Alabama’s most recently discovered and rare freshwater mussels gained protection under the Endangered Species Act on Tuesday, along with 36 river miles of critical habitat in St. Clair and Etowah counties.
The designation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the result of a 12-year campaign by the Center for Biological Diversity, which noted the Canoe Creek clubshell is threatened by agricultural and forestry runoff, water pollution from nearby municipalities and severe drought events.
“North America has already lost 35 species of freshwater mussels to extinction, so it’s fantastic that the Canoe Creek clubshell at long last has Endangered Species Act protection,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the center. “With a recovery plan and captive restoration program, we can make sure this special mussel doesn’t join the dozens of species the Coosa River has already lost forever.”
Curry called the damming of Alabama's Coosa River “the biggest extinction event in American history,” suggesting several dozen species of freshwater snails and mussels vanished as the river was tamed in the 20th century.
The Canoe Creek clubshell was first identified as a distinct species in 2006, decades after several others in the historical record had vanished. At roughly 3.5 inches long, the mussel has a dark-yellow to brown outer shell and an iridescent white inner shell, and a salmon-orange soft body.
Recent surveys found only 25 living specimens in two separate populations on Big Canoe Creek and Little Canoe Creek West, separated from each other by the H. Neely Henry Reservoir.
“They are important to the food chain because lots of different animals eat them, but mussels are even more important for water quality because they filter water constantly and store contaminants in their bodies,” Curry said.
The surveys indicate the Canoe Creek clubshell is no longer reproducing, Curry added, but the species can potentially be saved with greater habitat protection and an intensive aquaculture program.
The Canoe Creek clubshell relies upon a symbiotic relationship with certain host fish for reproduction. The mussel releases larvae into small packets that resemble small fish prey. When the packets are eaten — either by the Alabama shiner, the tricolor shiner or the striped shiner — they attach onto the fish’s gills until they transform into tiny mussels. Then, they drop off the host fish and begin life on the creek bottom.
“To be healthy at the subpopulation and species levels, the Canoe Creek clubshell needs individuals to be present in sufficient numbers,” the FWS wrote in the Federal Register. “Mussel abundance facilitates reproduction. Mussels do not actively seek mates; males release sperm into the water column, where it drifts until a female takes it in. Therefore, successful reproduction and subpopulation growth requires a sufficient number of females to be downstream of a sufficient number of males.”
With the endangered species designation, “any federally funded or permitted activity will have to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine its habitat isn't harmed,” Curry said, noting Alabama Power has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a dam and water reservoir in the habitat.
Also on Tuesday, the FWS reclassified the smooth coneflower from endangered to the less critical designation of threatened. The wildflower can be found in sunny meadows in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.
When it was initially listed as endangered in 1992, all but 21 surviving populations had been lost to highway construction, tree plantations, development and roadside maintenance, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Today there are 44 smooth coneflower populations.
“The smooth coneflower’s recovery shows how remarkably effective the Endangered Species Act is at preventing extinction,” Curry said. “Hundreds of the Southeast’s special plants and animals are still here because of the Act, but hundreds more are still in dire need of protection to ensure they are still around for future generations to enjoy.”
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