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How mussels are reporting good news for our waterways

Douglas Levere
University at Buffalo
Brandon Sansom (left) with Sean Bennet in the Wilkenson lab. The laser and cameras are used to study water flows at different depths.

Freshwater mussels once filled the Great Lakes and all of its tributaries, only to have the population erode as the water went bad and overseas invasive species became a problem. However, research at the University at Buffalo is suggesting some mussels are recovering, as are the lakes.

Brandon Sansom did his Ph.D. at UB in civil engineering, mixing in biology and environmental engineering. He said that involved a lot of wading in the water, looking for mussels and working on which mussels were doing well and which weren't.

Credit Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo
University at Buffalo

Researchers at UB, working with the University of Oklahoma, are studying two-waterways: Tonawanda Creek and French Creek, which flow into the Allegheny River.

He did much of his research in Tonawanda Creek. The water is pretty clean - important because mussels are filter feeders, drawing water and what's in it through the bodies.

In the bad days of polluted water, some kinds of mussels made it and some didn't. Sansom said researchers want to know which is which.

"It really just speaks to how hardy some of these organisms are," Sansom said. "They are long-lived. Some species can live 40, 50, maybe even 60 years, and so I think it does speak to their ability to adapt and to persist in sometimes pretty harsh environments."

Even so, he wouldn't recommend eating any of them because of the substances they filter from the water, like those that live in the legendarily contamined Buffalo River.

Credit Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo
University at Buffalo

"The main component I'm looking at is how freshwater mussels are actively modifying or engineering their habitat to improve the success of individual species, as well as subsequent generations," Sansom said, "then how that impacts other organisms, other aquatic life and how a lot of that really leads to the structure and function of stream ecosystems."

However, the problem is not just in the waterways.

"There are a number of freshwater mussel species right in the Niagara River and within the Great Lakes. There's a lot of evidence showing how zebra mussels have drastically contributed to the decline of native mussels, but we are also starting to see some of these native mussels respond in light of these zebra mussel and quagga mussel invasions," he said.

Sansom said this all started when hired to do some scuba diving for researchers in the St. Croix River in Wisconsin and Minnesota while an undergraduate at Washington & Jefferson College and becoming very interested in what he saw.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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