Two Buffalo State scientists are coauthors of a recent article in Biological Reviews that presents the need to standardize methods and share research to improve successful conservation of freshwater mussels in Europe. The article, “Conservation status of freshwater mussels in Europe: state of the art and future challenges,” begins the effort by discussing 16 species of European mussels in the order Unionida. The discussion includes what is known—and, importantly, what is not known—about the unionid mussels’ biological characteristics and habitat preferences, as well as threats to existing mussel populations. This study, the first comprehensive review of the status of freshwater mussel species in Europe, was carried out by 49 scientists from 40 research institutions.
The article's lead authors are Manuel Lopes-Lima and Ronaldo Sousa from the Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR) and Juergen Geist from Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM). The study notes that mussels play a critical role in aquatic ecosystems, and it warns that mussel populations are declining all over the world. Freshwater mussels “…provide direct services to humans, such as water purification, serving as important prey for several commercial fishes, providing a direct source of protein, and providing valuable materials such as shells and pearls,” the authors note. Nonetheless, 44 percent of freshwater mussel species are classified as threatened or near threatened.
The paper is coauthored by a number of scientists including Lyubov Burlakova (pictured), senior research scientist, and Alexander Karatayev, director, both of the Great Lakes Center at SUNY Buffalo State. Burlakova and Karatayev are internationally known experts in freshwater mussels, which they have studied in Texas, Belarus, and in the Great Lakes of North America.
The study highlights major threats to the survival of numerous mussel species. “Many of the problems faced in Europe are the same here in North America,” said Burlakova. “The biggest by far is habitat loss, including water extraction and impoundment, and degradation due to pollution. Texas alone has more than 6,900 reservoirs, and very few species of mussels can live in reservoirs.”
Burlakova and Karatayev are members of an international committee seeking to coordinate efforts of malacologists—scientists who study mussels—in Europe and the United States. The effort follows the second international conference of scientists who study freshwater mussels, which was hosted by the Great Lakes Center in October 2015.
One benefit Burlakova expects to see as a result of “Conservation Status” and other efforts to advance mussel research is greater efficiency. For example, lead co-author Geist determined the most useful habitat parameters to use when looking for certain mussel species. “We hope to send one of our graduate students to study with him in Germany,” she said. “Using proven techniques will streamline research efforts and save time and money.”
Mussels, unlike land animals, are largely invisible to humans. “For example, people are surprised when we show them the mussels we find in Texas or New York rivers,” said Burlakova. “People often don’t even know the mussels are there.” Yet mussels display an extraordinary range of surprising characteristics: using “mussel lures” to attract fish as hosts for their young; having a life span of more than a century for some species; and creating pearls.
“They are fascinating animals as well as important to aquatic ecosystems,” said Burlakova, “and yet they are going extinct at an alarming rate.” In North America, three-fourths of freshwater mussel species are imperiled or already extinct—important because North America has more freshwater mussel species than any other place in the world. “In Tonawanda Creek alone, about 20 miles from campus, 19 mussel species have been documented,” said Burlakova. “We hope increased scientific collaboration can help conserve these mussel populations.”
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