Monte McGregor spends his days lying facedown in the river, his nose just a few inches from the bottom. It’s the best way to search for elusive creatures with fanciful names such as the ring pink, sheepnose, and monkey face.
McGregor, a biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, leads the state’s efforts to find and restore some of the rarest creatures on the planet: freshwater mussels. It’s not an easy task.
“When you are looking for a needle in the haystack, sometimes you don’t find the needle,” he says.
Mussels resemble clams. They’re primarily found in the riffles and shoals of rivers and creeks. McGregor’s job is to find the rarest of the mussels, then take them back to a special hatchery in Frankfort in the hopes that the species can be bred and its offspring returned to the wild.
The project goes beyond saving a species. Research on these creatures may one day help humankind. Mussels filter their food from the water around them; they ingest pollutants but resist serious diseases.
“They don’t get cancer,” McGregor says. “We don’t know why they do that or how they do that.”
Mussels also serve as canaries in the coal mines when it comes to water quality. Although they can tolerate some pollutants, they can’t live in places where the water quality is bad.
McGregor faces a race against time in his efforts to save the mussels. More than half of the 104 species of mussels that once existed in Kentucky are rare, extinct, or no longer found in the state. Dam construction is one of the leading causes of the disappearing species.
Mussels are unique because they actually go fishing to reproduce. They produce a “lure”—sometimes resembling a minnow or crawfish—to draw fish. When the fish is close enough, the mussel spews larvae, which attach to the gills of the fish. After a time, the young mussels drop off and start their new lives.
Mussels pair with specific fish. However, when dams prevent fish from migrating, some mussels no longer have a host for their young. This is one of the reasons some mussels face extinction.
McGregor’s mussel hatchery re-creates conditions once found in the wild. The first real test of the project will occur this summer, when month-old, endangered fanshell mussels are returned to the Rolling Fork River in west-central Kentucky. McGregor hopes all those days spent with his nose to the riffles will be worth the effort.
Learn more in A Guide to the Freshwater Mussels of Kentucky, published by the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission. Visit www.naturepreserves.ky.gov for more information.