Dr. David Zanatta and Dr. Daelyn Woolnough currently collaborate on a project designed to identify host fish species for at-risk freshwater mussels in the Great Lakes region, funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Freshwater mussels are often considered the most dangerous animals in the world, due to habit degradation, destruction of freshwater environments and the introduction of exotic species including non-native zebra mussels and round goby. In fact, Michigan has 4 federally endangered, 13 state endangered and 6 threatened species of freshwater mussels. Yet mussels are indicators of water quality, provide nutrients to aquatic plants, filter water and are considered and an aquatic "canary in the coal mine"; the conservation and recovery of these understudied organisms are the focus of Zanatta's and Woolnough's research at CMU. They are determining basic life history for mussels in order to help with the recovery of these species in the Great Lakes region and beyond.
Unlike zebra mussels, native mussels require a host fish for part of their early life cycle in order to develop into an adult. The microscopic larval stage of a freshwater mussel attaches for a period of time onto the gills of a fish until a required transformation takes place. Determining the host fish species for mussels in the Great Lakes watershed is the focus of the Zanatta and Woolnough collaboration. When the population of a particular fish species dwindles, this impacts the mussels who use that species as hosts for the larval stage. Zanatta and Woolnough have developed the only host fish testing and propagation lab in the United States with a focus on Great Lakes species. This facility is now being used to study the life cycle of endangered mussel populations of endangered mussel populations and eventually to propagate mussels; lab-reared mussels can then be used to restore and augment populations across our region.