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Biologist Documents Rare Mussel in Chattahoochee River for First Time in 150 Years


December 6, 2000


Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (404) 679-7291

Carson Stringfellow was hoping to find mussels when he and his daughter Brooke went "musseling" at Goat Rock Reservoir, a section of the Chattahoochee River below Georgia Power=s Bartlett=s Ferry Dam. For Stringfellow, an environmental consultant and part-time environmental studies instructor at Columbus State University who specializes in freshwater mussels, or malacology, identifying and documenting mussels is a hobby and a passion. But in early October Stringfellow made the discovery of a lifetime.

What he found was a purple bankclimber (Elliptoideus sloatianus), a federally threatened freshwater mussel which had not been recorded in the Chattachoochee River in about 150 years.

"When I first saw it I was looking straight down on the top, and I thought it was a washboard," said Stringfellow, referring to one of the six other mussel species that he has documented in this section of the river. "But when I reached down and picked it up, I immediately knew it wasn't. I thought, Oh my, that's a purple bankclimber!"

Stringfellow recorded the physical description of the mussel and took digital photographs from many different angles, which he sent immediately to Dr. Jim Williams, a mussel biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, Florida.

"I knew it was a purple bankclimber, but I wanted a second opinion," said Stringfellow. "I didn't tell Jim what I thought it was. I just said, Look at these photos and tell me what it is."

"I couldn't believe after all these years that a purple bankclimber could still be in the Chattahoochee," said Williams. "I immediately looked back through historical records, and found only two other records of a purple bankclimber in the Chattahoochee -- and the most recent one was from about 1850."

According to Williams, records at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia show that the purple bankclimber was a staple of the diet of Chattahoochee Valley Native Americans. "Excavation of Indian middens has revealed numerous purple bankclimber shells. So prior to European settlement, this mussel was abundant in the Chattahoochee. But by the 1850s, the purple bankclimber was almost non-existent in the Chattahoochee," said Williams.

The decline of the purple bankclimber mirrors the story of freshwater mussels throughout the United States. According to a 1998 report by The Nature Conservancy, 67 percent of freshwater mussels in the United States are at risk of becoming extinct or are already extinct. Mussel declines can be attributed to pollution and sedimentation in our waterways, introduction of non-native species, and altered flows and temperatures resulting from dam construction and operations. The problem is most grave in the southeastern United States where rivers and streams once supported extremely diverse ecological communities.

According to Bob Butler, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is currently writing a recovery plan for the purple bankclimber and several other southeastern mussel species, it is too early to tell whether the discovery of this individual mussel is significant to the recovery of the species.

"A single individual does not mean there is a viable population," said Butler. "We need to conduct surveys to find out if there are more individuals, and if they are recruiting young individuals into the population. Mussels can live over 50 years, so this could just be an individual that has survived since before the dams were constructed in the 1900's."

Sandra Tucker, Georgia Field Office Supervisor for the Service, said the Service is planning to team up with Georgia Power Company to do surveys in Goat Rock Reservoir. "The water is too cold for divers to do a comprehensive survey right now," said Tucker, "but when the water warms up in the spring, we would like to get a team in the water to find out what is or isn't down there."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 530 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 Ecological Services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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