New York Field Office
Northeast Region

Freshwater Mussels of New York

Mussels in Trouble

According to the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society, freshwater mussels are "the most gravely imperiled group of animals in the country." Their biggest threats include dams, channelization/dredging, decreased water quality, and habitat loss. Out of the 300 species found in the United States, 70 have been federally listed as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Three of these listed species are known to live in New York State:

Clubshell; Ryan Hagerty USFWS
Photo credit: Ryan Hagerty, USFWS

Clubshell (Pleurobema clava)

Federal Status: Endangered
New York State Status: Endangered

Dwarf wedgemussel; USFWS
Photo Credit: USFWS

Dwarf wedgemussel (Alasmidonta heterodon)

Federal Status: Endangered
New York State Status: Endangered

Rayed bean; Todd J. Morris
Photo credit: Todd J. Morris

Rayed bean (Villosa fabalis) - also see tagged mussels at right -->

Federal Status: Endangered
New York State Status: Endangered


Northern riffleshell; USFWS
Photo credit: USFWS

Northern Riffleshell (Epioblasma torulosa rangiana) - on top of ruler.

Federal Status: Endangered
New York State Status: Endangered

Why should we care about mussels?

  • Monitors of aquatic health: Healthy mussel populations generally indicates a healthy aquatic system which often means good fishing, good water quality for waterfowl and other wildlife species. Conversely, when mussel populations are at risk, it indicates problems for other fish and wildlife species, and people too.
  • Ecological value: Mussels are natural filters, feeding on algae, plankton, and silts; they help purify the aquatic system. Mussels are also an important food source for many species of wildlife including otters, raccoon, muskrat, herons, egrets, and some fish.
  • Human Health: As filter feeders, mussels help keep drinking water clean.
  • Cultural value: Mussels played an important role in the cultural history of prehistoric and recent native peoples. They were used as food and the shells were used for ornamentation, tools, and as a commodity for trade. Indian shell middens (the piles of shells that Native Americans have left behind) extend for miles along sites of old villages and encampments.
    • Explore the "Mussels and Us" tab of the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society for more information about the historical and cultural value of mussels.
  • Biodiversity: In North America, we have close to 300 species of mussels. Considering that less than 20 mussel species are found in most other countries of the world, our rivers and streams are truly "rich" with mussels species! The loss of any of these species will definitely have consequences on how the aquatic ecosystem functions.

The Intricate and Astonishing World of Mussel Reproduction

Video from Nature: Triumph of Life "The Eternal Arms Race" produced by WNET

Although the lives of freshwater mussels may appear boring to some, their reproductive strategies are quite fascinating! After the male releases sperm, it is carried by water currents to the female where fertilization occurs. Then, the fertilized eggs are transformed into larvae inside the female. She then packs the larvae into an enticing lure to attract a specific fish species.

Thinking the lure is food, the target fish will approach and investigate. When the fish gets close enough, the female mussel will expel her larvae at the fish.  Some of the larvae attach to the fish's gills or fins, and hitch a ride for a few weeks while they continue their transformation into a juvenile mussel.

When the transformation is complete, the juvenile mussels drop off of the unharmed fish, and begin their life in the sediments, slowly growing into adult mussels.

New York Field Office Mussel Work

The New York Field Office works with a variety of partners to protect and restore freshwater mussels.

  • Project Reviews
    • We review designs for projects that may affect mussels and work together to minimize the impacts.
  • Research
    • Our office has provided funding through the Upper Susquehanna Conservation Alliance to support freshwater mussel research being done at SUNY Oneonta and SUNY Cobleskill on non-listed mussel species including their current status in the upper Susquehanna River watershed and the role that American eels play in their reproduction.
  • Surveys
    • We have funded mussel surveys in the Allegheny River watershed and the Delaware River watershed.
  • Mussel Relocation
    • The New York and Pennsylvania Field Offices  worked together  to relocate endangered mussels that were located under a bridge in Pennsylvania. In this video, biologists place mussels into their new home in New York State!


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Species in New York State

Last updated: July 22, 2019
All images by FWS unless otherwise noted.