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Purple Cat's Paw Pearlymussel
The Challenge of Preventing the Extinction of an Aquatic Species
One of the rarest mussels in North America, the purple catspaw was once widespread in the southern portion of the Ohio River basin in mid-size and large rivers. It was listed as endangered in 1990. At that time it was thought to be functionally extinct. Although individuals were still living in two rivers - the middle Cumberland River, Tennessee, and Green River, Kentucky - there were no breeding populations. The last fresh dead individual in the Green River was collected in 1988, and the last live or fresh dead individual collected in the Cumberland River was in 1983.
Phenomenally, in 1994 a breeding population was discovered in Killbuck Creek, Ohio, and there was hope for the species existence. Over the last decade, however, Killbuck Creek has degraded to such an extent that drastic measures are now necessary to ensure that the purple catspaw survives.
Two Preventing Extinction grants to survey and collect purple catspaw for captive propagation were awarded (in 2005 and 2007). The primary objective of both grants was to locate purple catspaw mussels, both female and male, and place them into mussel propagation facilities located at Columbus, Ohio and Frankfort, Kentucky.
However, a 2006 survey yielded surprising and unfortunate results; the status of the population had declined significantly—only nine males were found after extensive surveying. They were held at the Columbus Zoo mussel propagation facility. In 2007, three additional males were found, but no females. The priority is to find female mussels. A second priority is to find suitable habitat for augmentation.
Although in dire straits, recovery for the purple catspaw is still possible, as long as there is suitable habitat for reintroduction, because propagation facilities can produce large number of juveniles from a single female. If captive propagation is successful, additional recovery efforts become feasible, including reintroduction into high quality habitat and habitat conservation and restoration.
Habitat restoration efforts have been initiated. Landowner Incentive Program money is being used to restore six miles of stream channel and streamside buffer within the Killbuck Creek watershed by providing livestock fencing and off-stream water supplies to private landowners. Discussions with Soil and Water Conservation staff have begun with the goal of increasing opportunities for private landowners to fence streamsides.
Partners in the purple catspaw recovery effort include the Columbus Zoo, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Center for Mollusk Conservation in Frankfort, Kentucky, and Ohio State University.
Recovery of the purple catspaw truly means saving a species from extinction. But it is not altruism. Saving this species will require promoting responsible land management that improves the water quality and channel structure of the streams and rivers where, we hope, this species will persevere.
Last updated: April 1, 2014