We’re going to save the mussels of Appalachia. Yes, we are.

Science News has something (perhaps small, perhaps strange) to be optimistic about. The endangered river mussels of America’s eastern mountains might go back to cleaning their rivers after all:

Five years ago, Indian Creek was the only known remaining habitat for the golden riffleshell (Epioblasma florentina aureola). And like many other mussels, this bivalve’s future looked bleak. Biologists estimated that only about 100 remained in the wild. “They were the next species on the list for disappearing from the face of the Earth,” says biologist Tim Lane, who leads mussel recovery efforts at the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center, near Marion. “We were literally watching the last of them.”

Seeing a species vanish in real time is difficult, he says, and is in some ways worsened by the mussels’ near-invisibility beneath the surface. “They’re not charismatic like, say, the northern white rhino,” he says. When mussels go extinct, almost no one knows — or mourns them.

Malacologists, like Lane and others who study mollusks, are accustomed to championing underdogs. More than two-thirds of all identified North American freshwater mussel species are extinct or endangered. North America has the greatest diversity of freshwater mussels — with a heavy concentration in the Southeast. Tennessee’s Clinch River hosts about twice as many species as all of Europe.

In every locale, the mussels’ problems arise from a mix of factors. Until about a century ago, enormous mussel populations thrived in the Midwest and Southeast, and mussels were often harvested to make shell buttons. But the construction of dams in major rivers divided these populations and separated the creatures from the fish that carry their larvae. “The dams suffocated the huge mussel beds in the most productive habitats,” says Paul Johnson, who runs Alabama’s Aquatic Biodiversity Center, in Perry County.

Adding insult to injury, rampant pollution from industrial dumping and chemical spills led to massive die-offs before the 1972 Clean Water Act led to cleaner waterways.

The effort to save mussels has implications far beyond the rural and rugged riverways of Appalachia. More than two-thirds of U.S. homes get their drinking water from rivers, Johnson notes. Mussels provide an inexpensive way to safeguard that resource and do some of the work of water treatment plants. “Mussels allow us to provide cleaner water on a less per-cost basis,” he says.

Members of the genus Epioblasma, including the golden riffleshell, have perfected a tactic that earned them the nickname “fish snapper.” The ritual begins when a mother mussel sends out a short thread, the end of which looks like a bug. When a hungry fish swims in for a bite, the shell snaps shut around the fish’s head and holds tight with short, sharp teeth just inside the shell’s rim. As the fish chokes, it inhales the glochidia, which install themselves in the gills. After a few minutes, the mussel relaxes and releases its captive. The fish that survive are stunned; smaller fish (which aren’t good hosts anyway) may die, their heads crushed by the mollusk’s snap.

[Monte McGregor, Director of Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation,] learned the basics of in vitro propagation in 2004 from Robert Hudson, a malacologist at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. By 2016, McGregor had spent more than a decade improving his recipe, finding the right mix of algae, nutrients and rabbit serum to feed glochidia. Although he prefers to use host fish to grow mussels — and the lab contains dozens of tanks that hold fish as hosts for some other species — scientists have so far been unable to identify the fish that can carry golden riffleshell larvae (which is why streamside infestation doesn’t work).

So McGregor had to grow the larvae without a host. After 18 days in an incubator with McGregor’s custom-made mussel-growing cocktail, about 1,600 larvae survived to become juveniles. They were transferred to silt-lined raceways with cool flowing water to simulate a river. Within a few months, the glochidia had grown to the size of nickels — large enough to survive in the wild.

Hundreds of the next generation of golden riffleshells are now back at home, with two populations in the Clinch River and one in Indian Creek since 2017. These mussels now measure about the size of a quarter, though some are bigger.