For Immediate Release, June 20, 2023
Will Harlan, (828) 230-6818, WHarlan@biologicaldiversity.org
Rare Southern Mussel Proposed for Endangered Species Protections
COLUMBUS, Ga.— Following a decade of advocacy by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to list the southern elktoe mussel as endangered. The Service also proposed to designate 578 river miles in Alabama, Georgia and Florida as critical habitat.
“Protecting the southern elktoe also helps protect fish, salamanders, turtles, crayfish and some of the most important aquatic diversity on the planet,” said Will Harlan, a senior scientist at the Center. “The health of our rivers depends on mussels like the southern elktoe, which have been clobbered by dams and dredging.”
This freshwater mussel once thrived in the Apalachicola, Chipola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, but today only six small populations remain. Since 2000, fewer than 70 individuals have been observed.
The southern elktoe has an olive-brown triangular shell with dark green rays; the inner shell lining is pinkish purple. Southern elktoe mussels are long-term brooders who shelter and nurture their young for nearly a year.
The southern elktoe historically occurred in large creeks and rivers near sandbars and rocks. Sixteen dams built on these rivers — and even more dams on smaller rivers and tributaries — have suffocated their habitat with sediment. The mussel also faces threats from dredging, water withdrawals for industrial agriculture and development, the invasive Asian clam and nutrient pollution.
The southern elktoe’s proposed critical habitat includes 349 miles of the Flint River, 88 miles of the Apalachicola River, 81 miles of the Chipola River and 57 miles of the Chattahoochee River.
Freshwater mussels such as the southern elktoe are the lungs of rivers. Mussels constantly filter water and remove pollutants from the rivers and creeks they inhabit.
Southern elktoe mussels also depend on host fish to transport their offspring. Mussels lure fish close to them and release their fertilized eggs onto the fish’s gills. Juvenile mussels develop on the gills before dropping off to begin life on their own.
The Southeast is a global hotspot for aquatic species, including mussels. More species of freshwater mussels are found in the Southeast than anywhere else in the world, but 75% of the region’s freshwater mussels are now imperiled. Thirty-six species have already been lost to extinction.
The Center petitioned for protection of the elktoe in 2010 and sued for its protection in February of 2020.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.