Mollusk research center will propagate endangered species

10/20/04



Rachel Mair, research specialist for the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences, siphons a tank at the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center.

Full size image available here

Blacksburg, Va. A new Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center has been established at Virginia Tech to study and propagate some of the 70 endangered mussel species in the United States.

Richard Neves, head of freshwater mussel research at the facility and professor of fisheries, used grants from such organizations as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, along with other foundations, to start the center. The facility includes a 2,000-square-foot research center, quarter-acre pond, storage buildings, a water well, and a two-room lab.

"Our researchers produced nearly 50,000 juvenile mussels last year and can produce up to 100,000 juveniles per year depending on the availability of the species," said Neves.

While propagation is one of the main objectives of the center, researchers also work on other projects. They are responsible for surveys at the Virginia Department of Transportation bridge sites, an annual project that requires 20 some surveys each summer.

Another project involves determining whether mussels' blood chemistry will indicate when bivalves are stressed. "Right now, the mussel is either alive or dead; we can't tell how healthy it is," Neves said. "We are also studying whether the pink heelsplitter mussel is able to produce what would be the only natural purple pearls on the market."

Experience for students is another priority. "It can be difficult to get typical fisheries students interested in shellfish because they usually want to work with finfish," Neves noted. "But, because conservation biology has become important, endangered species are now on the radar screen and it's been less of a problem for me to attract students."

The center provides graduate and undergraduate students in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources the opportunity to gain real research experience with freshwater mussels.

"Students who graduate with either a master's degree or Ph.D. find jobs right away because many states want to have a malacologist (mussel specialist) on staff," said Neves. "People who are trained in traditional fisheries don't get that kind of training. They don't get the experience or expertise with mollusks."

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