John Ball Zoo’s conservation team is working to preserve a small yet essential living creature in the Grand River: Freshwater mussels.  

Michigan has 43 different species of mussels, and 32 species are found in the Grand River.  However, freshwater mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of animals, with 13 of the Grand River species either endangered, threatened or of special concern. These species are considered “keystone species,” essential to maintaining a healthy Grand River ecosystem. 

To make a difference, John Ball Zoo is partnered with Grand Valley State University (GVSU) to monitor for mussel species and use the data to create an updated snapshot of freshwater mussels in the river and use that information to enact conservation goals that will improve life for them. The partners are working to update a 20-year-old survey of mussel diversity to see how mussels have been impacted by pollution and the channelization of the river. 

“There’s a common misconception that mussels are bad, because there is lots of public information about invasive mussel species,” said Bill Flanagan, conservation manager at John Ball Zoo. “There’s a huge diversity of freshwater mussel species and having a healthy native mussel population helps improve water quality and provides an array of benefits for the entire ecosystem.”  

Freshwater mussels filter water, provide a food source for various other wildlife and can provide essential habitats for other aquatic invertebrates. The health and survival of mussel populations is tied to the survival of some fish species, like trout and suckers. 

The mussel survey project is part of Grayson Kosak’s master’s degree thesis at GVSU. Led by Eric Snyder, graduate program director of biology, Kosak is monitoring several sites for mussel species and conducting research to fill in gaps in knowledge and literature of freshwater mussels. In recent surveys, the team has found 26 different mussel species in the lower Grand River.  

“Ideally we will be able to use the information from these surveys to develop conservation strategies to improve conditions for freshwater mussels and fish communities in the future,” Kosak said. “The Grand River is an amazing ecosystem, and we take great pride in the stewardship of all species, no matter how small.” 

The team at John Ball Zoo wants everyone to know they can contribute to mussel conservation by not throwing trash into the Grand River and picking up trash they see near the river. Flanagan encourages everyone to learn about freshwater mussels and other native species, and to be cautious about accidentally spreading invasive species by cleaning boats and other equipment used in waterways. 

Mussel conservation is just one project the Zoo and its partners are working on to preserve wildlife in the Grand River. The Zoo works with GVSU and the Grand Rapids Public Museum on sturgeon conservation, and the Zoo also works on projects to conserve sucker fish, turtles and other aquatic species. 


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