Rare Mussel Species Returns To The Duck River After More Than Two Decades
Steve Ahlstedt holds some pale lilliput mussels before they're reintroduced into the Duck River. They were bred from some of the last surviving mussels in Alabama. Credit: Sally Palmer / The Nature Conservancy

Rare Mussel Species Returns To The Duck River After More Than Two Decades

Steve Ahlstedt holds some pale lilliput mussels before they're reintroduced into the Duck River. They were bred from some of the last surviving mussels in Alabama. Credit: Sally Palmer / The Nature Conservancy
Steve Ahlstedt holds some pale lilliput mussels before they’re reintroduced into the Duck River. They were bred from some of the last surviving mussels in Alabama. Credit: Sally Palmer / The Nature Conservancy

Biologists released 800 pale lilliput mussels — tiny brown shellfish, each about the size of a fingertip — into Tennessee’s Duck River this week. They were placed on the endangered species list in 1976 and disappeared from the diverse river ecosystem about 25 years ago.

But now, as they were being reintroduced, hundreds of them sat in a tray full of water. They were bred in Alabama.

“Incredible,” said Steve Ahlstedt, a retired biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who was helping place them along the banks of the Duck. “Never thought in my wildest dreams I’d see this many.”

Steve Ahstedt is on the team of biologists placing the tiny mussels near the banks of the Duck River. Credit: Paul Johnson / Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center
Steve Ahstedt is on the team of biologists placing the tiny mussels near the banks of the Duck River. Credit: Paul Johnson / Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center

The river lost its pale lilliput mussels after the Normandy Dam was built and disrupted the water flow. But since then, the Tennessee Valley Authority has worked to improve water quality from the dam, and the Duck still home to dozens of mussel species. So what’s the benefit of bringing back this one kind?

“You know, part of the answer to that is: We really don’t know,” says Sally Palmer, director of science at the Tennessee Nature Conservancy. “We’re still learning about the role the pale lilliput has in the overall mussel community because its numbers have been so low over the decades.”

If the pale lilliput thrives in the Duck River for the next 10 years, it might be taken off the endangered species list.

This is one of the first species to be reintroduced. Biologists brought another kind — the winged mapleleaf mussel — back to the river last year.

Sally Palmer recorded audio on the river for this story.

Emily Siner

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter: @SinerSays
Close Menu