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There are More Species of this in the Licking River than All of Africa -- and They May Disappear

As a group of Sierra Club members canoes the Licking River near Falmouth on a hot summer Saturday morning, state mussel expert Dr. Monte McGregor tells them there are twenty-five separate species of the hard­shelled, water-cleaning clams in the river.
 
At the first stop, a shallow shoal with about two­feet of murky brown river around it, McGregor leads canoeists on a kind of scavenger hunt.
 
“The Licking River has more mussel species than the entire Continent of Africa,” says McGregor over the sloshing search. Slowly, the twenty-three individuals wade in, tread carefully over smooth rocks, then, gingerly go in above the ankles at first, then their knees. Visible distance into the water is probably half a foot. Most mussel mucking is done by feel.
 
A pile forms on the bank with McGregor identifying each specimen. One with a sharp edge is called a heel splitter, another the size of a small football is a mucket.
 
Answering why we should care about these river creatures, McGregor says, “They clean the water. They eat the stuff that harms us humans. And they may be in the river doing what they do for seventy, eighty, ninety years.”
 
McGregor, built like a linebacker, is a malacologist and aquatic research scientist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife in Frankfort. He manages the Center for
Mollusk Conservation, also in Frankfort, and coordinates with Western Kentucky University in a mussel propagation facility on the Green River near Mammoth Cave National Park.
 
One of his bucket load of tasks is to introduce mussels into the environments of endangered mussels to reverse downward trends. What happens is that over a long period of time, a variety of chemicals enter the river, construction projects alter an otherwise pristine location, and with change comes an alteration in the species and number of fish that mussels depend upon for propagation.
 
“Fewer fish, fewer chances for the mussels to find hosts for their larvae,” McGregor said.
 
For non­-mussel experts, McGregor explains that each mussel depends upon a specific river fish to develop young mussels. The female mussel sprays tiny baby mussels (larval) on the gills of the “host” fish. At a specific moment, the baby mussels drop off the gills of the host and fall to the river bottom where they might or might not survive.
 
The process is a massive example of hit­or­miss. The female mussel’s eggs must be fertilized by an upstream male. Then a suitable host fish must swim by close enough to have its gills sprayed. Then, the juvenile mussels drop off and must find suitable habitat (river bottom) for growth and survival.
 
In slowly flowing rivers such as the Licking or the Green, the right mussel meeting up with the right fish at the right time and the juveniles living through the experience “is a long, long shot,” says McGregor.
 
The group of Sierra Clubbers is entranced as McGregor explains mussel science. The Licking River, he says is one of the most mussel rich rivers in the world.
 
But because so many competing interests come to the river, approximately 26-percent of all mussels are endangered, which means they might disappear, which would be a
catastrophe for the Licking, the Green and other mussel loaded rivers.
 
McGregor’s three daughters, ages nine through 13, eagerly participate in reaching down into the brown water and fetching up one form of mussel or another, stopping to compare finds with their father and other Sierra Club participants.
 
To give mussels a fighting chance McGregor uses the Green River facility to perpetuate “federally endangered and other significant mussels.” Mussels exist in a sage bed of sand and are fed by an automated algae system and water system that would be the envy of any aquarium hobbyist in the world. Each bowl is labeled with mussel’s name and its level of endangerment. The humidity inside the facility is somewhere around heavy sweat and sauna.
 
While identifying one of the 20 species picked from the Licking on this hot, steamy Saturday, McGregor explains the Licking’s uniqueness as a river. The river, which runs unfettered for about 180 miles and flows north, is non­navigable for long stretches, it has been spared dams and other man­made alterations so that now the river’s main culprits are people, agricultural runoff and sewage from businesses and cities.
 
Learning about and caring for mussels, “is a long process, but the health of theriver and its water is that important,” McGregor says.
 
“Let’s see, we identified twenty of twenty-five mussel species in this section of river,” McGregor tells the Sierra Clubbers, smiling like a teacher whose students all earned A’s on a test. “That’s really terrific and it shows why the Licking is one of the most prolific mussel habitats in the world.”
 
The trip on a recent Saturday originated about three miles above Thaxton’s Canoe Livery at the U.S. 27 bridge near Falmouth.
 
McGregor, from Dawson Springs, earned a B.S. from Murray State and received his Master's from Tennessee Tech and a Ph.D. in aquatic ecology from Auburn. He went to work for Fish and Wildlife in Kentucky in 2002. He and his wife, Brenda, have six children and live in Lawrenceburg.
 
McGregor can be reached at [email protected] or through the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Frankfort. For Sierra Club outings in Northern Kentucky, contact John F. Robbins at [email protected] or Paul Buelterman at [email protected].
 
Written by Roger Auge, RCN contributor
 
Photo: Licking River as it meets the Ohio River between Covington and Newport/RCN file