Kurth highlights mussels’ lives

CLARE – Jennifer Kurth, a biologist with the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Section, summed up what she does for a group of more than 30 people gathered at the Clare Library Saturday afternoon.

“I work on streams that are impacted,” she said. “It’s like environmental CSI – I find the problem and how to fix it.”

The other part of her job is educating the public about water quality and sharing her passion for one of the animals that she calls “Mother nature’s filtration system.” – the mussel.

“It’s one-fourth of my job,” she said. “It’s the best part.”

She said that in North America, more than 300 species of the bi-valve filter feeders are known.

“It’s the greatest mussel biodiversity in the world,” she said.

It’s also in danger. Eighty-four of those species are on the federal endangered species list – 30 are extinct.

They’re threatened by habitat loss, silting, dredging, dam construction and demolition and pollution.

“They’re some of the most sensitive organisms,” she said.

In addition, zebra mussels, black carp and Asian clams threaten them as well.

The animals have an interesting anatomy; they take in water and expel it after taking their nutrients from it.

“It has its mouth and butt right next to each other,” she said.

They are also not the brightest critter in the stream.

“They have no brain, eyes or ears,” she said. “They also have no sense of direction.”

Oddly enough, “they have teeth.”

They do move around a bit though, mostly to get to water that’s deeper or cooler than their current location.

“They have a giant foot,” she said. “They use it to dig and move.”

They also have a reproductive cycle dependent on fish. The female mussel releases her eggs into the stream where they attach themselves to passing fish.

“They get a free ride,” she said.

One species, called the snuffbox mussel, lures its fish partner close then holds it in its shell until it forces all the eggs into its host fish that comes to no harm.

“It gets to go home and tell all the other ones ‘Oh you would not believe the day I had,'” she said.

Iowa once had a thriving commercial mussel fishing industry. The shells were used to make buttons; the meat for fertilizer.

“Muscatine was the button capital of the world,” she said.

The trade lasted from 1889 until 1930 when the mussel beds were depleted.

She said that Webster County is currently host to about five species. Four of those can be found in Lizard Creek.

While she encourages the public to send her photographs of mussels, they should be put back into the water after their photo session.

“If you find a live mussel, please don’t take them,” she said.

Following her presentation, participants got to explore the animals environment by taking a canoe or kayak paddle down a section of Lizard Creek.

Joe Perry, of Clare, attended with his family.

“It sounded interesting,” he said. “We live near Lizard.”

He learned a few new things too.

“I didn’t know they needed a host fish,” he said.

He said it’s important for his children to learn about their environment and to help protect it.

“If we don’t take care of Mother Nature, then this won’t be around,” he said.

Isaac Landwehr, 9, of Fort Dodge, was looking forward to the canoe trek after the learning session.

He was surprised to learn that the mussels need a fish to reproduce and that there are as many species.

He was hoping to search for them on the canoe trip.

“If they let me,” he said.

John and Donna Thalacker, of Fort Dodge, attended to paddle the Lizard Creek for the first time. They also came to learn.

“That was a bonus,” John Thalacker said. “It was very interesting.”