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Exploring the World of Native Nevada Mussels with the Elko Biodiversity Program

Exploring the World of Native Nevada Mussels with the Elko Biodiversity Program

How many mussels do you see in the photo above?

This question was asked by GBI Research Associate Ali Helmig during a presentation she recently gave to the Elko (Nevada) Audubon Society. In this presentation she pointed out that “for years, many survey methods would note ‘clams’ or ‘mussels’ with no additional detail,” then went on to enumerate the variety of mussels native to Nevada: California floaters, western pearlshells, and western ridgebacks. The presentation further went over the lifecycle of mussels, general appearance and habitat information, approaches to mussel surveys, differences and effectiveness of different survey methods, and general watersheds where mussel species have been found.

The information conveyed by Ali was more than just academic. Rather it is based upon the work being done in the field by Ali and a team consisting of Delaney Martin (GBI wildlife biologist), Eric Miskow (aquatic biologist for Nevada Division of Natural Heritage), and Nycole Burton (wildlife biologist with Bureau of Land Management and creator of the Elko Biodiversity Program). This team has attempted to clean up unspecific records of native mussel and their habitats through species level surveys and hour long counts in areas where mussels occur. In addition to inventories, the team has also monitored populations of western ridgebacks, which were petitioned for Endangered Species Act listing in 2020.

This study of mussels is just one fascinating component of a much larger collaboration between the Elko District Bureau of Land Management and GBI. The two agencies partnered in August 2016 to create the Elko Biodiversity Program with the objective of enacting inventory and monitoring of special status species on public lands, thereby increasing knowledge of the range, status, and habitat requirements of these species of management concern. And the mussels only account for three of the ninety-seven species on the Sensitive Species list. Consequently, the team has conducted important field work on pygmy rabbits, three species of shrew, eight mollusk species (including the three mussels), sixteen species of bat, twenty plant species, twenty-three bird species, and more. The data being accumulated will provide vital guidance to land management and sensitive species decisions on the part of the Elko District BLM.

Below, enjoy some of the slides and photos from Ali’s presentation, including the answer to our initial question: 77 visible western pearlshell mussels!

“When water is deep enough and temperatures are warm enough, snorkeling is by far the best method for surveys. We use counters for this, multiple colors for species or age classes. This method has little to no impact from weather and you will get the most accurate count. If water is dark or tannic we will use a flashlight to survey dark spaces for better visibility.”
“We also use viewfinders, generally when the water is too shallow or too cold to snorkel. They are not as impacted by weather and you can more easily see into difficult or dark spaces.”
“Wading visual search can be more easily impacted by weather, lighting, wind, etc., but is sometimes the only survey option in very shallow streams, when water is too cold to safely submerge your body for a long period, or you don’t have other equipment available to you.”
“The last, newest survey method we use is collecting eDNA. This is done with a water pump and a filter in the stream. The filters go to the Rocky Mountain Research Station (National Genomics Center for Fish and Wildlife Conservation) for genetic processing. There are pro’s and con’s to eDNA collection: you may get a false positive if there are remnant shells in the water, a positive result may not mean you have live mussels in the system, this should be used as a baseline and followed up with visual surveys.”

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