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Two open purple cat’s paw mussels in stream. The purple cat’s paw, found only in Killbuck Creek, Ohio, is among the rarest freshwater mussels in North America.  (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Angela Boyer)

Two open purple cat’s paw mussels in stream. The purple cat’s paw, found only in Killbuck Creek, Ohio, is among the rarest freshwater mussels in North America. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Angela Boyer)

On the Brink: Preventing Extinction of the Purple Cat’s Paw
Ohio Is Home to One of Nation’s Rarest Freshwater Mussels

By Angela Boyer
Ohio Field Office Biologist

One of the rarest freshwater mussels in North America, the purple cat's paw, was widespread in the southern Ohio River and its larger tributaries before these rivers were dammed. The species was listed as endangered in 1990 when it was thought to be functionally extinct, meaning that some live adults existed in the wild, but these individuals did not appear to be producing any young.

In 1994, biologists discovered a breeding population in Killbuck Creek, Ohio, which renewed hope for the species' existence. However, water quality in Killbuck Creek has since degraded to such an extent that drastic measures are necessary to ensure the purple cat's paw mussel's survival.

Funded by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Preventing Extinction grants, surveys and efforts to collect purple cat's paw mussels for captive propagation began.  After the 2006 survey, biologists found that safeguarding the species in captivity would be a challenge. The wild population had declined significantly, and only nine males were found after extensive surveying efforts. In 2007, three additional males were found, but no females.

In dire straits, the purple cat's paw could still survive if biologists could find at least one female. Propagation facilities can produce large numbers of juveniles from a single female. With successful captive propagation, additional recovery efforts become feasible, including reintroductions and habitat conservation and restoration. So, the search continued.

In 2012, much of the Midwest experienced drought. Ironically, this rainfall shortage provided exceptional survey conditions because Killbuck Creek is normally turbid, with high flows that limit visibility and access. This survey yielded some encouraging findings: 15 males and 10 females from various age classes, including some only 3 or 4 years old. Surveyors placed these mussels into in-stream holding cages so they could be collected the following spring when females would likely be carrying mature larval mussels, called glochidia.

Earlier this year, biologists pulled the cages and transported the 10 female mussels to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's Freshwater Mussel Conservation and Research Center. At the zoo, biologists found that six of the mussels carried glochidia. The partners in purple cat's paw recovery hold the mussels at three separate propagation facilities to avoid a single accident or mistake wiping out the entire batch of glochidia.

Freshwater mussels have an unusual and complex method of reproduction. Female mussels release glochidia directly into the water and the glochidia must attach to the gills or fins of a specific host fish species to complete development. After attaching, glochidia transform into microscopic-sized juveniles within a few weeks and then drop off the fish.  At each propagation facility, biologists have extracted glochidia from the purple cat's paw mussels and placed them in containers with host fish. Biologists are now waiting to see if viable juvenile mussels drop from the host fish. The very existence of the purple cat's paw is riding on the success of this effort.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with many partners to prevent purple cat's paw extinction, including 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.

For more information on the purple cat's paw and other endangered and threatened species in the Midwest, go to

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the Service is featuring endangered species stories on each of the 50 states throughout the year.  More about the Endangered Species Act 40th anniversary and other endangered species conservation articles can be found at



Last updated: August 9, 2013