A new effort is underway to track the number of freshwater mussels living in Wisconsin waterways.
This summer, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sent mussel census-takers to survey how many freshwater mussels are living in watersheds throughout the state. Unlike zebra mussels, the freshwater species improves aquatic health.
"They are very important to the ecosystem and they're also kind of a harbinger of the health of an ecosystem," said Meg Jones, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who went along for one of the mussel-counting trips. "They're kind of like marine kidneys because they filter sediments and nutrients that can spawn algae blooms, as well as like pesticides and heavy metals that are in water. And plus, they're also food for animals like muskrats, otters and ducks."
Jones said it's been nearly 40 years since the state last surveyed for freshwater mussels, and that effort didn't provide a comprehensive picture of the species. The latest effort has DNR officials in snorkels and shallow waters and visiting between 50 to 70 sites, including at least two locations in each of the state's 21 major watersheds.
Habitat loss, dams, water pollution and even human harvesting have led to the demise of certain freshwater mussel species, said Jones.
The DNR plans to do more intensive studies in select areas of the state once it compiles data from its first round of surveys. It also hopes to continue doing the surveys on a regular basis, much like the United States Census.
"They want to continue doing this and that would mean training citizens to go out and to do that to keep track of mussels in waters throughout the state," Jones said.
Jones added that one of her favorite parts in reporting the story was learning the names of the various mussel species, which often reflect the anatomical structure of the clams, but also sound like the name of a rock band. Some of her favorites include: elephant ear, monkey face, pistol grip, pig toe and heel splitter.