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ON THE WILDSIDE - Look below surface to explore rich life, heritage of pearly mussels in Kansas

By Alan Hynek | ENVIRONMENTAL DIVISION, DPW | June 10, 2014

Monkeyface, Pimpleback and Fat Mucket. Although these colorful names may sound like nicknames for old grade school classmates, they are actually three of 48 species of mussels native to Kansas.

Freshwater mussels are frequently overlooked as native wildlife in Kansas. However, the roles they play in our aquatic systems are very important and equally as interesting.

Some species can be found throughout the entire state, while others are limited to specific drainages. As with most plants and wildlife in Kansas, the diversity of mussels is greater in the east than in the west, particularly in the southeastern corner of the state.

Mussels are an important component of the aquatic community. They constantly filter water, making them excellent indicators of aquatic health. A large mussel, like the heelsplitter, can filter up to a gallon of water in a day, removing sediments and small organisms from the water. That same filtering process also may lead to their demise if pollution is a problem in that stream.

Reproduction among freshwater mussels is fascinating and unusual. After a short incubation, the young mussels, or glochodia, are released into the water. There, they must find and attach to the gills of certain species of fish. Some mussels can use a number of host fish, while others can only use one. If one or more host fish disappear from the stream, the mussels will be unable to reproduce and eventually will die out.

Mussel shells have been used for a variety of things over the years. The plains Indians ate mussels and used the shells for a variety of items, especially as tools used for digging and scraping. More recently, buttons were made from thick shelled species. In fact, Missouri and Kansas led the nation at one time in buttons produced from mussel shells.

You may notice that many modern buttons try to mimic the coloration and texture of the once popular mussel shell buttons. One of the biggest button factories in the U.S. was in Iola, Kansas. Currently, the harvest of mussels in Kansas is regulated by size and species. Most harvested mussels go to cultured pearl markets overseas.

Freshwater mussels come in all shapes and sizes. In Kansas, the largest is the white heelsplitter that can get up to eight inches in diameter. One of the smallest is the fawnsfoot, which gets not much bigger than a half-dollar. The most common are the pond mussel and mapleleaf. Mussels are very long lived, with some reaching more than 120 years old, with 50-year-old mussels being fairly common. Counting the growth rings on the shell will give the approximate age of the individual, although some are difficult to distinguish.

Some of the least common mussels in Kansas include the black sandshell, rabbitsfoot, elktoe and mucket. The hickory nut was once common to the state, but is now completely extirpated from Kansas, although relic shells can be found at the Kansas River at Fort Riley.

Although it may sound tempting, it would not be a good idea to cook up a mess of Kansas clams. Most individuals big enough to eat also are fairly likely to be 20 or more years old. During that period of time, an individual mussel can accumulate a high degree of pollution and sediments, and, generally, will not have a good flavor.

If you would like more information about freshwater mussels in Kansas and at Fort Riley, stop by the Environmental Division Office, Directorate of Public Works, at Building 407 or call 785-239-6211.
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