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.”
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.