The Tippecanoe River is a haven for endangered freshwater mussels – some of the most endangered species in North America. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, it has been estimated that 70% of our freshwater mussels are extinct, endangered or in need of special protection. Environmental changes in their habitats and how they must live have created problems for their existence in the past 200 years.
All freshwater mussels belong to the mollusk order of Unionoida. They are simple creatures kept safe by two shells connected by a hinge. The shells form by calcium carbonate layers taken from the water that surrounds them and vary in size and color. Mussels can be anywhere from one inch long to over one foot and range from yellow to green to brown to black shells.
Unlike other animals, mussels do not have to search for food, but wait for their meals to come to them. Suspended in the water are tiny plants and animals called plankton that are siphoned by the mussel’s gills which filter out their food and take in oxygen. They can move about when necessary by using a muscular appendage, or “foot”, but traveling distance is limited.
Mussels burrow underneath the sand of river and stream bottoms or in the murky depths of our lakes and ponds. 47 different freshwater mussel species reside in Indiana; twenty-four are federally or locally endangered or of special concern.
The health of the mussel population is used to measure the health of the Tippecanoe itself. The proverbial canary in the coal mine, mussels are used as an early warning system for possible environmental health concerns because they are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality. Therefore sudden die-offs or large mussel kills are reliable indicators of water pollution. Ultimately, when mussels are thriving, we can safely assume the water is clean and other species in the river are thriving as well.
Mussels are valuable to the river system for other reasons. They are natural water purifiers with a single mussel filtering several gallons of water a day. Mussels also play a vital role in the aquatic food chain as a source of energy for otters, hellbenders and other wildlife. Without mussels, Tippecanoe would lose an important biological resource that helps keep the river healthy and happy.
The following table displays mussels listed as endangered in Indiana. The names followed by an asterisk (*) are also included on the federally endangered list as well.
Along the Tippecanoe River, landowners work with conservation groups to protect water quality by restoring wetlands, planting trees, applying conservation tillage practices in nearby farm fields, and picking up trash along the river banks. The Nature Conservancy works with these landowners to ensure the good health of the river and surrounding ecosystems.
The Department of Natural Resources also works to protect the Tippecanoe as a natural habitat and recreational site. The health of the Tippecanoe watershed is just as important to those who fish and canoe as the animals in it. DNR is also taking steps to remove the invasive zebra mussel from the Tippe and all Indiana waterways. Zebra mussels will completely cover native mussels and compete with them for food and oxygen which will eventually weaken and starve our native mussels.March 26, 2013