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CMU freshwater mussel research

Mussel-strengthening research

CMU teams to assess health of Kalamazoo watershed by testing condition of mollusks

Contact: Gary H. Piatek


Ask Central Michigan University biology faculty member Daelyn Woolnough why she studies freshwater mussels, and she brings up canaries.

"They are kind of like the canary in the coal mine," she explained. "If you start to see them declining, we start to see the decline in water quality. Then, we see a decline of higher-level organisms, like fish, being affected."

Preventing that decline is the mission she and her team of students will take this summer to the Kalamazoo watershed, a large portion of which was devastated by an oil spill in 2010.

Bolstering the project is a three-year, $499,000 grant from the Kalamazoo River Community Recreational Foundation. CMU also is partnering with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on the research.

"This is really going to help the conservation of mussels across the state of Michigan and the Great Lakes," said Woolnough, who also is a faculty member of CMU's Institute for Great Lakes Research.

Streamside education

Among this summer's student researchers is Megan Malish from Mount Pleasant, who is pursuing a master's degree in conservation biology, a program distinct among Michigan universities, said Woolnough.

Upon graduation, she wants to continue research on how human activity impacts the environment and share that knowledge with the public.

"I would like to work someplace like a natural history museum where you have research going on but you also have that outreach aspect, where you engage and teach the public," she said.

Joining her on the river will be Grace Henderson, a senior from Brighton, Michigan, majoring in biology and minoring in natural resources.

She previously did mussel surveys in the Grand River near Lyons, Michigan, and her own independent project on the Chippewa River.

"I've lived in Michigan my entire life, fishing and swimming in its lakes and rivers as a child. It seemed natural that in my college career I'd be involved in the conservation of that resource for the next generation to enjoy."

She plans to pursue a master's degree in conservation.

Unique to this study

Woolnough has researched mussels with students at a number of sites over the years, including the Grand River in Michigan and the Maumee River basin that connects to Lake Erie.

But this year's research is unique in that the team will have a mobile, stream-side lab to enable on-site experiments.

Team members will be able to test water to see whether mussels from one site could survive in another, which would help in diversifying populations, Woolnough said.

The lab, a converted trailer, also will serve as a roving classroom. Teams will take it into surrounding communities to show how mussels clean rivers and streams and why it is important for a community to guard against contaminants that could enter the waters and kill the mussels.

Malish will be the student researcher to lead the outreach portion of this summer's research.

CMU, along with the Michigan DNR, also will develop Michigan's first mussel hatchery as part of the project.

"We will use a portion of an existing MDNR fisheries research station in Saline to house and reproduce mussels to eventually  increase the numbers or to add diversity of the Kalamazoo River," Woolnough said.

Mussels' importance

Mussels are important because they remove contaminants from water as they filter it for food. The more mussels there are, the better the water quality.

Also, the more diverse the variety of species, the better the long-term health of the stream or river, because each species filters different things, she explained. Also, if an environmental event harms one species, the others will continue to do their work. And it's a big job.

"Mussels can filter up to a swimming pool of water within a couple of days, depending on how many mussels are in the bottom of the river," Woolnough said.

She expects to find species in the river that they've never found before, aided by the funding that will allow her to pay eight students to test at 100 sites in summer 2018. By contrast, a much smaller team in 2012 worked at nine sites, where they found 17 live species, she said.

"There are so many branches and tributaries of the river that have never been looked at," she said. "My expectations are that we are going to have an abundance of data to analyze."

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