In an era of increasingly sophisticated technology, two treatment plants on the Mississippi River are experimenting with what might be the original water-quality gauge: mussels. Water departments in Minneapolis are using native freshwater mussels in pilot programs as early-warning systems to detect possible contamination in the river. The mussels — Actinonaias ligamentina, a small, brown bivalve also known as mucket clams or mucket mussels — clamp their shells shut when they sense contaminants. Researchers believe that reaction could tip off water operators to potential problems with water sources. The projects began at several Mississippi River sites with support from a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant.
The municipality keeps mussels in climate-controlled tanks that constantly receive running water from the river via intake stations. That’s critical, as the muckets live by filtering bacteria, protozoans and other organic matter out of the water. A biomonitoring system in the tanks uses magnetic sensors that track the space between the mussels’ shells and note when they shut, which might indicate water-quality problems. Interestingly, the mussels sometimes close their shells on their own, so researchers must analyze those reactions and water-quality parameters to distinguish normal behavior from a protective reaction. The mussels require little maintenance and are monitored several times a day; their tank is cleaned with fresh river water about twice a week. As the mucket mussel is now found alive in only a small number of drainages, it is vulnerable to habitat degradation and catastrophic events. For these reasons, the mucket was listed as a threatened species.
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