Race to save Alabama’s mussels and snails, some of the rarest creatures on Earth

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Tulatoma
Once thought to be extinct, the Tulatoma snail has made a comeback in the Coosa and Alabama river systems near Wetumpka. Photo via Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center

Located about 70 miles southwest of Birmingham in rural Marion, Alabama, sits the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center. Formerly a federal aquaculture facility, the place is a quaint, sprawling no-frills complex with spotty cell service. Despite its appearance and remote location, the research performed there is, in many cases, the “last chance” to save some of Alabama’s (and the planet’s) rarest mussels and snails. 

In early June, we visited the center to meet the people who are bringing these remarkable creatures back from the brink of extinction. 

Ranked First In the Nation

Great Seal Alabama
Alabama’s Great Seal at the front entrance of the National Cathedral – photo via Pat Byington

“We’re the only state that has our rivers on the official State Seal,” Dr. Paul Johnson, longtime program supervisor at the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center, told me.

Alabama’s rivers are the most diverse in the nation. Period. We are a river state. That’s why the founders of Alabama carved an outline of the 10 watersheds into our state logo. It is what makes us special, unique among our neighboring states and anywhere else in the world.

As a result of our abundant freshwater rivers, life is teeming within them. According to Johnson, Alabama ranks first in the United States in:

  • Freshwater Mussels—186 kinds of mussels vs. 302 mussels in North America
  • Freshwater Snails—202 kinds of snails vs. 725 snails in North America
  • Freshwater Fishes—308 kinds of fish—a quarter of all fish species in North America
  • Crayfish – 99 kinds of crayfish in Alabama, more than any state in the U.S.

Aside from having the most kinds of mollusks and fish, Alabama also has 85 threatened and endangered mussels and snails. 

Why They Are Imperiled

Snails Alabama
Plicate Rocksnail (Leptoxis plicata) Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, Blount and Jefferson Counties – Photo ADCNR/AABC

Johnson provided us several reasons why Alabama has numerous imperiled freshwater critters.

“The first big blow to the fish, mussels and snails came with the construction of large reservoirs,” he said. “These types of animals don’t live in pools or reservoirs. They only live in flowing water. And sometimes, depending on how those dams were managed, they can’t even live downstream. As a result, big populations of aquatic animals were all taken out.”

In addition to dams shrinking their habitat, uncontrolled sediment and habitat destruction of tributaries has also had a devastating impact. 

Help Is On the Way

Birmingham Alabama
Undescribed snail – photo via Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

The good news? There are projects popping up all over the state addressing these issues.

Help is on the way.  

“I am excited about the future,” exclaimed The Nature Conservancy for Alabama (TNC) Director Mitch Reid. “We are working with our state and federal partners to remove barriers to fish that are essential for mollusks. We have some really big projects that are just beginning, like reconnecting the passage of fish from the Alabama to the Cahaba – and working down in the Wiregrass on the Pea River to remove a large impoundment in Elba.”

It is a team effort. TNC’s Freshwater program and their partners throughout the state are working together to restore stream banks, reduce stormwater pollution and making sure we improve water quality statewide.

Reid sums it up succinctly, “We’re reconnecting habitat and improving water quality. We are doing this so that species that were on the brink can recover – so that groups like the Aquatic Biodiversity Center, who are trying to bring them back can be successful.”

   

Mounting a comeback for these rare critters is everyone’s mission.

All In 

Here is something to be very proud of in Alabama. 

In 2004, the state of Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources set into motion plans to establish the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center (AABC). Using State Wildlife Grant monies, then-Governor Bob Riley opened the Aquatic Biodiversity Center in Marion, Alabama—the largest non-game recovery program of its kind in the U.S.

“The Department of Conservation decided that they wanted to pursue a recovery center that was directed towards threatened and endangered species that occurred in state waters, because we had so many aquatic species that were conservation targets,” described Johnson.  “And of those species that are conservation targets, there’s no bigger group than freshwater snails and mussels.”

Thanks to the Governor and the Department of Conservation, they are  “All In.” 

Story of One Mussel and One Snail

So how do you repopulate—bring back—rare mussels or snails in a river? 

Johnson and his staff showed us. 

Meet the Alabama Lampmussel

Alabama Lampmussel
A displaying female Alabama Lampmussel (Lampsilis virescens) of the Paint Rock River, Jackson County – Photo ADCNR/AABC

The Alabama Lampmussel was one of the first listed endangered species in Alabama back in 1976. Before the Biodiversity Center worked on its recovery, the mussel was found only in one place in the world, a small stretch of the Paint Rock River in Northeast Alabama. Today, after nearly a decade, the Center has released 30,000 Alabama Lampmussel mussels in five stream systems. 

How to Save a Rare Mussel

Alabama Lampmussel
Aquatic Biodiversity Center’s Michael Buntin capturing the larvae from a female Alabama Lampmussel. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

Here is how Johnson described the process of recovering the Alabama Lampmussel and rare mussels.

“Freshwater mussels are actually parasitic animals that start their flight on the gills of the fish. To propagate them artificially in the laboratory, the first thing we have to do is collect and prepare the host fish that we’re going to use for the infection, which generally lasts three to five weeks for most species. 

Then we will locate the female mussel that is charged with the juvenile form of the larvae called glochidia.  We place those glochidia directly on the appropriate host fish, where they stay for three to five weeks. 

We then collect juvenile mussels off of the fish after they have finished their metamorphosis on the host. We start the culture process of rearing those juveniles a quarter of a millimeter in size when they come off the host fish.

The culture process, depending on the species, takes 14 months to two years or more for them to be big enough to be at a releasable, taggable size, to release them into a stream.” 

In other words, it is like a fertility clinic for mussels. 

The following two videos show the Center’s Michael Buntin capturing the larvae from a female Alabama Lampmussel and the Spotted Bass swimming around in water that has been injected with the glochidia so it can attach to their gills.

The photos show the “mom” mussel’s tag which helps the scientist know not to use her again if they pick her back up in the wild. 

Taggging the mussels
On the right, the tagging of the female Alabama Lampmussel, so when it returns to the stream scientists will not take the larvae again. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

The other photos are the “fish condos” where the spotted bass stay for a few weeks while the mussels grow on their gills and become juvenile mussels. Once that happens they are captured ( they are still microscopic) and then the “culture” process begins.

Spotted bass condos
Spotted bass hanging out for weeks with larvae from the Alabama Lampmussel. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

It takes more than a decade to determine whether the recovery effort is successful. The Alabama Lampmussel is recovering nicely. Soon, once all the data is in, one of the rarest mussels in the world will hopefully lose that title thanks to the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center.  

Meet the Tulotoma

Tulotoma
Tulotoma shells. Photo via Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center

The Tulotoma, which resides in the Coosa and Alabama river systems near Wetumpka, has gone from extinct to endangered to downlisted in two generations. 

It was classified as extinct up until 1988—listed as endangered after it was re-discovered and now it has gone from being listed as endangered to threatened. 

According to Johnson, the Center does not always have to breed and try to repopulate an area with mussels and snails. Just improving its habitat can do the trick.  

For example, the Tulotoma snail’s habitat was improved immensely once Alabama Power established a minimum flow below the Jordan Dam. The critter also benefited from the strong enforcement of the Clean Water Act which enabled the snail to grow and live in several large tributaries. In fact, improved water quality expanded the snail’s range to the Alabama River System. 

Hugely successful, the Magnifica Tulotoma is the first snail featured on Wetumpka’s new “Snail Trail.”

Protect Habitat—Clean Water Matters

Lily Byington
Cahaba Lily at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in 2020. Photo Pat Byington for Bham Now

Clean water is the difference maker when it comes to protecting freshwater snails, mussels and fish. They reflect the health of a watershed.

“When the sewers were fixed in Birmingham, beginning in the late 1990s, it helped every listed species in the Cahaba river that was there,” said Johnson. Every listed freshwater species in the Cahaba expanded its range and their numbers due to the water quality improvements.”

He noted there was survey work on aquatic animals performed in 1992-93 and the mid-2000s. The work on the sewers began right in between those dates.

How to Support Alabama’s Aquatic Biodiversity Center

So, how can you directly support the work of the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center?

Since the center is supported by the Federal State Wildlife Grant Program, help the state meet the match requirements by purchasing a license plate or donating a portion of the monies you are receiving on your tax refund to the Fisheries Research and Nongame Wildlife “checkoff” Program. For every dollar you donate, it is matched 2 to 1.

 Here are the links:

The Center also works closely with the Alabama Rivers and Streams Network and The Nature Conservancy in Alabama’s Freshwater Program.

After Our Tour

CRS
Students from the Cahaba River Society’s CLEAN program, photo from the Cahaba River Society

At the end of our whirlwind tour of the Biodiversity Center, Dr. Johnson reminded us how fortunate we all are as Alabamians to be blessed with more kinds of fish, snails and mussels than perhaps anywhere in North America, if not the world. Our rivers and the animals that live in them are irreplaceable.

“From an ecological perspective, because we have so many species that have developed and evolved in these watersheds, you can’t get other species to do their jobs in these watersheds. It’s what makes our state unique, and it’s a huge part of our state heritage.”

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Pat Byington
Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.
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