Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office
Conserving the Nature of America

Appalachian elktoe (Alasmidonta raveneliana)

Appalachian elktoe. Credit: USFWS

Appalachian elktoe. Credit: USFWS

Federal Status: Endangered, November 23, 1994

Description: The Appalachian elktoe has a thin, kidney-shaped shell, extending to about 10 centimeters (4 inches). Juveniles generally have a yellowish-brown periostracum (outer shell surface), while the periostracum of the adults is usually dark brown to greenish-black in color. Although rays are prominent on some shells, particularly in the posterior portion of the shell, many individuals have only obscure greenish rays. The shell nacre (inside shell surface) is shiny, often white to bluish-white, changing to a salmon, pinkish, or brownish color in the central and beak cavity portions of the shell; some specimens may be marked with irregular brownish blotches.

The reproductive cycle of the species is similar to other native mussels. Males release sperm into the water, and the eggs are fertilized when the sperm are taken in by the females through their siphons during feeding and respiration. Females retain the fertilized eggs in their gills until the larvae (glochidia) fully develop. The glochidia are released into the water and must attach to the gills or fins of the appropriate fish species. They remain attached to their fish host for several weeks, drawing nourishment from the fish while they develop into juvenile mussels. They do not hurt their fish host. The juvenile mussels then detach from the fish host and drop to the bottom of the stream where they continue to develop, provided they land in a suitable place with good water conditions. This dependence on a certain species of fish increases the mussels’ vulnerability to habitat disturbances. If the fish host is driven off or eliminated because of habitat or water quality problems, the mussels can’t reproduce and will eventually die out.

Habitat: The species has been reported from relatively shallow, medium-sized creeks and rivers with cool, clean, well-oxygenated, moderate- to fast-flowing water. The species is most often found in riffles, runs, and shallow flowing pools with stable, relatively silt-free, coarse sand and gravel substrate associated with cobble, boulders, and/or bedrock. Stability of the substrate appears to be critical to the Appalachian elktoe, and the species is seldom found in stream reaches with accumulations of silt or shifting sand, gravel, or cobble. Individuals that have been encountered in these areas are believed to have been scoured out of upstream areas during periods of heavy rain, and have not been found on subsequent surveys.

map of Appalachian elktoe distribution in North Carolina

Map of Appalachian elktoe distribution in North Carolina.

Distribution: The Appalachian elktoe is known only from the mountain streams of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Although the complete historical range of the Appalachian elktoe is unknown, available information suggests that the species once lived in the majority of the rivers and larger creeks of the upper Tennessee River system in North Carolina. In Tennessee, the species is known only from its present range in the main stem of the Nolichucky River.

Currently, the Appalachian elktoe has a very fragmented, relict distribution. The species still survives in scattered pockets of suitable habitat in portions of the Little Tennessee River system, Pigeon River system, Mills River, and Little River in North Carolina, and the Nolichucky River system in North Carolina and Tennessee. In the Little Tennessee River system in North Carolina, populations survive in the reach of the main stem of the Little Tennessee River, between the city of Franklin and Fontana Reservoir, in Swain and Macon Counties; and in scattered reaches of the main stem of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson and Swain Counties, from below the town of Cullowhee downstream to Bryson City. The species also occurs in the Cheoah River, from the Santeetlah Dam, downstream to its confluence with the Little Tennessee River in the in Graham County.

In the Pigeon River system in North Carolina, a small population of the Appalachian elktoe occurs in small scattered sites in the West Fork Pigeon River and in the main stem of the Pigeon River, above Canton, in Haywood County. The species has been recorded from the Mills River (upper French Broad River system) in Henderson County; and, the Little River (upper French Broad River system) population of the species, in Transylvania County, North Carolina, is restricted to small scattered pockets of suitable habitat downstream of Cascade Lake.

In the Nolichucky River system, the Appalachian elktoe survives in a few scattered areas of suitable habitat in the Toe River, Yancey and Mitchell Counties, North Carolina; Cane River, Yancey County, North Carolina; and the main stem of the Nolichucky River, Yancey and Mitchell Counties, North Carolina, extending downstream to the vicinity of Erwin in Unicoi County, Tennessee. It has also been found in the North Toe River, Yancey and Mitchell Counties, North Carolina, below the confluence of Crabtree Creek, and in the South Toe River, Yancey County, North Carolina. The majority of the surviving occurrences of the Appalachian elktoe appear to be small to extremely small and restricted to scattered pockets of suitable habitat.

Threats: Poor water quality and habitat conditions have led to the decline and loss of populations of the Appalachian elktoe and threaten the remaining populations. Studies have shown that freshwater mussels, especially in their early life stages, are extremely sensitive to many of the pollutants (chlorine, ammonia, heavy metals, etc.) commonly found in municipal and industrial wastewater releases. Impoundments (dams), channelization projects, and in-stream dredging operations directly eliminate habitat. These activities also alter the quality and stability of remaining stream reaches by affecting the water flow, temperature, and chemistry. Agriculture (both crop and livestock) and forestry operations, roads, residential areas, golf courses, and other construction activities that do not adequately control soil erosion and water run-off contribute excessive amounts of silt, pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals, and other pollutants that suffocate and poison freshwater mussels. The alteration of floodplains or the removal of forested stream buffers can be especially detrimental. Flood plains and forested stream buffers help maintain water quality and stream stability by absorbing, filtering, and slowly releasing rainwater. This also helps recharge groundwater levels and maintain flows during dry months.

Critical Habita: Critical Habitat for the Appalachian elktoe was designated on September 27, 2002. For specific information on areas designated as Critical Habitat and the primary constituent elements defined for this species, please refer to the Federal Register notice (67 FR 61016 - 6104066).


LeGrand, Jr., H.E., J.T. Finnegan, S.E. McRae, S.P. Hall. 2010. Natural Heritage Program List of the Rare Animal Species of North Carolina. N.C. Natural Heritage Program, Raleigh, NC.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1996. Appalachian Elktoe Recovery Plan. Atlanta, GA. 32 pp.

For More Information on Appalachian elktoe...

Species Contact:

John Fridell, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, 828-258-3939 ext. 225

Species profile revised on October 4, 2011.

Last Updated: August 6, 2015