Although mussels have little value as human food,
they hold immense ecological value. As a vital link in the food
chain, they are a major food item for many animals including muskrats,
otters, and raccoons. Young mussels are also eaten by ducks, wading
birds, and fish. As important natural filterers, they improve water
quality by straining out suspended particles and pollutants from
our rivers. A single mussel can filter several gallons of water
per day–ultimately making the water cleaner for human uses.
Mussels serve as good indicators of ecosystem health because they
remain essentially in one place for a long time and require good
water and sediment quality and physical habitat. As such, they are
frequently used by biologists as “biological monitors”
to indicate past and present water and sediment quality in rivers
and lakes. For example, biologists can measure the amount of certain
pollutants in mussel tissue to determine the type and extent of
water pollution in various rivers and lakes.
Freshwater mussels are often found
in aggregations called mussel
beds, which can be a mile or more
long and contain thousands of mussels. Adults bury themselves
bottom sediment with a fleshy muscular foot and live by filtering
algae and other food items from the water column. In the Mississippi
many species do well near the main channel of the river where there
is adequate flowing water, food, and stable substrates.
occupy the soft-bottomed sediments typically found in backwaters.
Live mussels and dead shells also provide habitat for a variety
of aquatic insects and algae. They act like a freshwater “reef,”
providing the foundation for a variety of life forms and habitat
conditions suitable for other aquatic organisms.
Archeological excavations, such as the one pictured above, uncovered
many mussel shells, demonstratcing that historically, mussels were
used by early Americans for food, tools, and jewelry.
or domestic animals because they accumulate and store toxic contaminants
in their tissues.