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
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.
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
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
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.