Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, April 4, 2017

Contact: Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681,

Yellow Lance Proposed for Endangered Species Act Protection in Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia

RALEIGH, N.C.— In response to an agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed Endangered Species Act protection for a freshwater mussel that lives in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. The yellow lance was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1991. It has declined by nearly 60 percent because of poor water quality caused by pollution and dams. The Center petitioned for its protection in 2010.

“Although most people have never even heard of them, freshwater mussels are the most endangered animals in North America. So it's great news that this one, the yellow lance, has been proposed for the Endangered Species Act protection that can ensure its survival,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “Mussels are indicators of water quality. Protecting their habitat directly benefits people as well as other wildlife that rely on clean rivers.”

The yellow lance grows to be around 3.5 inches in length, with a shell that is more than twice as long as it is tall, and lance-shaped when viewed from the side. Juveniles have bright-yellow shells that darken to brown or black with age, and the inside of the shell is iridescent white, salmon or blue. It is threatened by pollution from agriculture, logging and urban development, as well as by climate change.

In North Carolina it is found in the Chowan, Neuse and Tar River watersheds. In Virginia it is found in the James and Rappahannock River basins. In Maryland it is found in the Chesapeake River Basin. There are eight surviving populations, six of which have low resiliency. Only the population in the Tar River in North Carolina is estimated to have moderate resiliency. In terms of habitat health, 86 percent of its remaining streams are estimated to be in low or very low condition. When viewed geographically, the species has declined by 70 percent in the Coastal Plain region and by approximately 50 percent in both the Piedmont and the Mountain regions.

More species of freshwater mussels are found in the southeastern United States than anywhere else in the world, but 75 percent of the region's freshwater mussels are now imperiled. Thirty-six species have already been lost to extinction. Once widely used to make buttons and jewelry, mussel shells, like trees, accumulate growth rings that can be used to determine their age. Freshwater mussels can live for a hundred years, making them among the longest-lived invertebrates.

Mussels improve water quality by filtering small particles from the water as they eat. They reproduce by making lures that looks like fish, crayfish, or worms; when their host fishes attempt to prey upon the lures, the mussels release their fertilized eggs onto the fish's gills, sometimes clamping the fish's face inside their shell. Juvenile mussels develop as parasites on the gills before dropping off to begin life on their own. In dirty water, the fish cannot see the mussel's lure, so the mussel cannot reproduce. Dams can also separate mussels from their specific host fishes.

“Freshwater mussels are fascinating and underappreciated animals, and we should all pitch in to make sure they survive for future generations,” said Curry.

Yellow lance

Yellow lance photo by Sarah McRae, USFWS. Images are available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.2 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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