The Blue Ridge’s Most Underrated Creature
In honor of Earth Day, young children at my church selected animals to represent in a skit performed for the congregation.
Among others, there was a monkey, a horse and a rainbow trout.
Their costumes reminded me of the creatures depicted entering Noah’s Ark. Who can forget those images of lions, pandas, elephants and giraffes lined up two by two? It seems that only the cutest of the wild kingdom were given an invitation.
What about the less-desirables?
As a nature advocate, I find myself speaking up for the underdogs quite often. These are creatures with scales or eight legs or smelly defense mechanisms. They are creatures that the media hypes as being dangerous. Usually, they are just dangerously misunderstood.
The following description of one of nature’s small fries is my own testament to Earth Day. Though not furry or friendly or even brightly colored, it is an integral part of our Appalachian web of life.
Ranger Amy’s Top Underrated Creature: The Freshwater Mussel
Freshwater mussels of many different species live in the rivers of surrounding counties. These fantastic and often endangered bivalves go by names, like “heel-splitter” and “wartyback.”
Mussels are considered to be “ecosystem engineers” because they modify aquatic habitat, making it more suitable for themselves and other organisms. They do this by filtering the water; literally cleaning it in order to find food for themselves.
The mussels’ shells provide a place for algae and insect larvae to attach to. When mussels are present in large numbers, they may become underwater gardens that in turn attract fish and other animals to feed.
Of all the interesting qualities of the seemingly uninteresting mussel, their reproductive cycle is most fascinating. Mussels are immobile. So, how do they find a mate, and how do they disperse their young? The bizarre answer is a testimony to nature’s complexity.
Male mussels release their sperm into the water to be captured by females downstream. Eggs develop in the female and transform into what is called “glochidia.”
The glochidia are released by the mother and are sometimes eaten by fish. In some species, the mother actually tricks fish into eating her young by flapping her “foot” around so that it appears to be a tasty worm. When a fish comes close, she squirts a mouthful of glochidia.
Once inside the fish, her young attach to its gills where they grow and mature into fully transformed, but still microscopic, juvenile mussels.
The juvenile will ride its fish around like a taxicab until it drops off and begins its own life in a habitat away from its parent. The fish has no idea that it just played host to a rambunctious, independence-seeking teenager.
Mussels were an important part of Native American life. When European settlers first arrived, they were astonished to discover rivers practically paved with freshwater mussels.
Mussels are now the most endangered group of animals in America, and many species have been lost to extinction. Water pollution, dams and introduction of exotic species have taken its toll on many species. It is estimated that 70 percent of the mussel fauna in the U.S. is in jeopardy.
You can help the freshwater mussel by remembering that anything that washes down the storm drain washes into the rivers. Sometimes, runoff includes herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer residue. The mussel that catches a mouthful of these toxins can die as it filters the water.
Do you know of an underrated creature that deserves time in the spotlight? Share your underdog on Dear Naturalist’s Facebook page.
If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!
Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.