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Virginia mussel declared extinct, a ‘warning sign’ for state’s rivers

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Here lies the green-blossom pearly mussel. It was some millions of years old.

The freshwater mussel, which had a greenish-brown shell marked by thin stripes, spent its time clinging to riverbeds, favoring fast-flowing water.

As larva, it enjoyed glomming onto host fish to grow. Later on in life, its hobbies included filtering up to 10 gallons of water per day and providing energy in the form of mucus for the rest of the food chain.

But the green-blossom disappeared from its native Virginia and Tennessee decades ago.

The species was deemed endangered in 1976. A live one hasn’t been spotted since the mid-1980s — that was by a Virginia Tech professor.

The final bell tolled for the green-blossom last month, along with seven other freshwater mussel species throughout the Southeast. They were among 23 plant and animal species declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The green-blossom mussel will be remembered by mollusk enthusiasts such as Tim Lane, Southwest Virginia mussel recovery coordinator with the state Department of Wildlife Resources. He and colleagues treasure the occasional green-blossom shell they find in the Clinch River, its last known habitat. The pieces get unleashed during floods after being buried in the silt, likely once piled high by muskrats.

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Experts can tell they didn’t die recently, though. The shells lack the telltale sheen. The continued presence of shells indicates that the green-blossom likely was once abundant in Virginia’s rivers, Lane said. It stuck around for millions of years.

But human-caused pollution and sedimentation became killers. Damming of rivers was particularly deadly, blocking off access to fish such as darters that the mussels need to grow.

The green-blossom needed to live in big numbers, Lane said, and once the population started declining, so did it. Experts were even giving up hope on the species by the time federal officials listed it as endangered.

It’s a shame the mussel couldn’t have held on a bit longer, Lane said. Conservation methods available today — including raising baby mussels offsite and releasing them into the river — could have done more to save it.

But there’s still hope for survivors, cousins of the green-blossom that are on the brink of extinction in the commonwealth.

Rivers are like any other ecosystem including forests or coral reefs: Every species plays a unique role. With the green-blossom gone, so are the services it provided to the food web and water quality, which impacts humans as well, Lane said.

The green-blossom is “a strong warning sign,” he said, “the canary in the coal mine for our rivers.

“If we don’t do anything, these other species are very likely to follow the same path.”

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