They provide essential water-quality functions and have great names like Atlantic pigtoe, Appalachian elktoe and Carolina heelsplitter. Freshwater mussels are among the most endangered groups of animals in the world, and North Carolina's are no exception — but there's a statewide effort to save them.

In the waters of Flat Swamp Creek in Davidson County, the hunt is on. Biologist Michael Perkins and technician Jennifer Dunn have donned hip waders and are scanning the creek bed. This is the first known survey of this stream for mussels. They had no idea what they’d find, and the early results surprised them.

"Yeah, we started encountering way more than we thought we were gonna see today," Perkins says.

It wasn’t just the number. Findings included the endangered Carolina creekshell. And also the Savannah lilliput, so named for its petite size. 

"That's a species that we haven't documented upstream of High Rock, as far as I know, in the state," Perkins says. "So, we're really pumped. Yeah, that was pretty cool.”

Perkins says the presence of these species in Flat Swamp Creek indicates that the water quality is good. Mussels are highly sensitive to change — and that makes them vulnerable. 

Freshwater mussels, including those in North Carolina, are among the most imperiled animals in the world. Many kinds have already been lost to extinction.

In the United States, it’s estimated that 70% of species are at-risk for the same fate. But only about a third are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

For Rachael Hoch, one of the state’s leading experts, they’re an endless source of allure. 

“They have the most fascinating life history that you could possibly imagine," she says. "While they are very simple on the outside, they're quite complex organisms.”

The Southeastern U.S. has the most diverse population of freshwater mollusks in the world. Mussels are thought to be the longest-living freshwater invertebrates. Some species may live as long as 100 years or more. And they contribute to the health of their environments.

“They filter water, that's the biggest thing that they do free of charge," says Hoch. "They help keep our rivers clear and clean and help us to really reduce the amount that we have to spend on making water drinkable.” 

These mussels are not suitable for humans to eat. But, they’re a vital food source for wildlife including muskrats, raccoons and fish. 

The benefits are real, but so are the threats, Hoch says.

"Because they're such a sensitive species it contributes to their declines," she says. "Habitat loss, and then you add disease and climate change and all these things make it very difficult for an animal that doesn't move that much to adapt."

At the Greensboro Science Center the Mussel Propagation Lab has been raising Eastern creekshells amid the hum and bubbling of tanks and aquariums that visitors can observe — and it’s almost graduation day.

Now that roughly 1500 have reached about an inch long, they’re ready to be released into the wild.

Lindsey Zarecky, the center’s vice president of conservation and research, has been with them since they were microscopic, and the thought of setting this first group free is a little emotional.   

"They've been in a beautiful situation and now they're going to have to see sort of what the real world is going to be like for them."

First, the young mussels will be placed in a pond on the center’s grounds. Once researchers know they can survive those conditions, they’ll be moved to their more native habitat in Piedmont streams to help keep the population of freshwater mussels stable.

“I think oftentimes, when we think of animals in need, we think of large megafauna somewhere else in the world, essentially somebody else's problem," she says. "And so, they realize, no, these are animals in our backyard that are in dire need of our help.”

But you don’t have to have a home propagation tank to help these valuable water critters survive.

Hoch says an easy step is to check your septic tank to make sure it isn’t contributing to poor water quality. People with land that drains into local waterways should make sure there’s vegetation growing along the banks to help stem the flow of sediment and pollutants into the water. 

Also, Hoch notes that property owners along those waterways can get a safe harbor agreement so the land can be used to introduce animals like freshwater mussels back into the wild.

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