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For Immediate Release, March 12, 2012

Contact:  Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681

Two Rare Eastern Mussels Protected Under Endangered Species Act,
Promising Improved Water Quality for People

WASHINGTON— In accordance with a landmark settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today protected two colorfully named mussel species, the sheepnose and the spectaclecase, under the Endangered Species Act. Both mussels were once common across the eastern United States but are now found in only a handful of rivers. The sheepnose has declined by 70 percent; the spectaclecase has declined by 60 percent. Freshwater mussels are key indicator species — their health reflects the overall health of rivers because they need clean water to survive — and are the most endangered group of organisms in North America.

“These mussels have funny names, but their situation is serious — and so are the water quality problems facing our country’s rivers. With Endangered Species Act protection, the sheepnose and spectaclecase have a real shot at survival and recovery,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center. “More than 50 mollusk species in the eastern United States have already been lost to extinction. But with a 99 percent success rate at preventing extinction, the Endangered Species Act is our best tool for keeping these mussels, or any other vanishing species, alive in the world.” 

The sheepnose is oval and five inches long; in the past it was commercially harvested for jewelry and buttons. Sheepnose are now found in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Spectaclecases are seven inches long and occur in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Very few of the surviving populations are known to be reproducing. Both species are threatened by pollution, dams and mining.

“The fate of humans is directly tied to the fate of mussels. By protecting these two species, we’re protecting the quality of the water we drink, fish in and swim in,” said Curry. “And the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to designate critical habitat for these mussels, because protecting their habitat will protect ours too.”

Mussels eat by filtering small particles from the water and thus contribute to water quality by making water clearer. They reproduce by making a lure that looks like a young fish; when larger fish attempt to prey upon the lure, the mussels release their fertilized eggs onto the fish’s gills. Juvenile mussels develop as parasites on the gills before dropping off to begin life on their own.

Learn more about the Center’s campaigns to stop the Southeast freshwater extinction crisis.

Today’s decision is part of a 2011 agreement between the Center and the Fish and Wildlife Service to speed protection decisions for 757 species around the country.

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