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The Green River May Hold the Key to the Survival of the Endangered Ring Pink and Other Rare Mussels


September 15, 2004

Lee Andrews, 502/695-0468, (cell phone 502/229-4616)
Elsie Davis,


An interagency team of more than 40 biologists are snorkeling and diving in the Green River near Munfordville, Kentucky, this week in hopes of finding the critically endangered ring pink mussel. Two ring pink individuals, the most recent records of the species, have been found in the Green River within the last five years, indicating that the river may still host a small reproducing population of the species – possibly the last reproducing population in existence.

If ring pink specimens are found, they will be held in captivity at the Center for Mollusk Conservation (CMC), operated by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) in Frankfort, for breeding purposes. If the surviving ring pinks can be bred and juvenile ring pinks reared at the CMC, surplus individuals may later be returned to the Green River or other suitable streams.

“The Green River is, by far, the most likely place for us to find ring pinks,” said Lee Andrews, Kentucky Field Office Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Frankfort. “With any luck, we’ll find both males and females, which will allow the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to propagate them in captivity, but it is a long-shot. If we can’t find them this time, we’ll just have to keep looking. It’s unlikely that the species will survive without this sort of human intervention.”

A $46,250 cooperative agreement between the USFWS and KDFWR is enabling the week-long, intensive survey from September 13-17. The funding for the effort comes from the Service’s 2004 Preventing Extinction Recovery Initiative, which is specifically directed by Congress to address the conservation needs of species that are closest to extinction. Other work under this Initiative was funded elsewhere in the country, but this is the only project that was funded in Kentucky. Dr. Monte McGregor, a malacologist and the Director of CMC, will lead the survey effort.

Other partners involved in the sampling effort include the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the National Park Service (Mammoth Cave National Park), the Army Corps of Engineers, the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, Daniel Boone National Forest, East Kentucky Power Cooperative, and The Nature Conservancy.

“This effort wouldn’t happen without the help of all of these other agencies, and we are very grateful for their support,” said Andrews. “The Army Corps of Engineers, in particular, was instrumental in this effort, because they reduced flows from the Green River Reservoir Dam upstream, allowing the biologists to have full access to the part of the river where the sampling will occur.”

If ring pink specimens are found during the survey, the captive propagation efforts at CMC will be the key to the species’ survival. Once widespread in the Ohio River and its larger tributaries in the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama, the ring pink mussel is now considered functionally extinct in the wild. Extremely small populations may still exist in segments of the Tennessee River, the Cumberland River near Hartsville, Tennessee, and the Kanawha River in West Virginia; however, the ring pink is most likely to be found in the Green River in Kentucky.

The survey’s primary focus is finding the ring pink, but other federally-listed mussels will also be collected if they are encountered and taken to CMC for captive propagation. Other endangered mussels that could be found in the Green River are the fanshell, the rough pigtoe, the pink mucket pearlymussel, and the clubshell. Some rare, non-listed mussels that could be found include snuffbox, sheepnose, rabbitsfoot, salamander mussel, Kentucky creekshell, pyramid pigtoe, and rayed bean.

Biologists will collect the mussels they find, identify them, and then take them to CMC. The CMC is already holding about 1,000 mussels of 57 species. Seven of the mussel species are federally-listed as endangered. Captive propagation efforts are ongoing for several species, and their host fish have been determined. Freshwater mussels require a host fish in order to complete a portion of their life cycle. Partially developed young, called glochidia, are released from the female mussel and must attach to a fish, usually on its gills or fins, to develop further. After a few weeks on the host fish the glochidia are transformed into juvenile mussels which then drop off the fish and settle on the stream bottom. Some mussel species are very host specific, and the host fish for the ring pink is not known.

“We recently determined the host fish for a close relative of the ring pink and that should help us determine the ring pink’s host,” said Dr. McGregor. “If we can determine its host, we are confident that we can propagate juveniles, assuming we have adequate adults to work with.”

Federally-listed as endangered in September 1989, the ring pink mussel is found in large rivers and inhabits gravel bars in shallow waters about two feet deep. Individuals of this species may live 50 years or more. Adults are about three or four inches in length and height. Their shell is thick and egg-shaped in outline. The exterior of their shell lacks rays and has a yellow-green to brown-black color, which is usually darker in older individuals. The inside, or nacre, of the ring pink’s shell is a salmon to deep purple color surrounded by a white border. Most historically known ring pink populations were apparently lost due to the conversion of rivers into large impoundments, changing the free flowing streams in which they occurred and the fish communities of those streams. Current threats primarily result from the ring pink’s restricted range, small population numbers, and its apparent inability to recruit individuals into populations.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 544 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 63 Fish and Wildlife Management offices and 81 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 Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

 Interior and Exterior of a Ring Pink Mussel's shell.  Photo by Leroy Koch, FWS.
Interior and Exterior of a Ring Pink
Mussel's shell.
Photo by Leroy Koch, FWS.

Ring Pink Mussel Fact Sheet

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