Estimation of vital population rates to assess the relative health of mussel assemblages in the Upper Mississippi River

Freshwater Biology
By: , and 



  1. Native freshwater mussels are a guild of benthic, filter feeding invertebrates that perform important ecological functions in rivers. Because of their long lifespans (30–50 years or longer), mussels are slow to respond to human‐induced alterations. Thus, development of sensitive indicators of mussel population responses to river conditions and management would be beneficial. Compared to marine species, estimation of vital rates (e.g. survival, growth) in freshwater mussels has received little attention.
  2. We placed passively integrated transponder tags on 578 mussels of four species (Amblema plicata, Cyclonaias pustulosa, Obliquaria reflexa, and Pleurobema sintoxia) in a well‐studied mussel assemblage in a side channel of the upper Mississippi River. Growth and survival of tagged mussels were assessed annually for 4 years across core (high density) and peripheral (low density) areas of the assemblage.
  3. Overall survival was highly variable, ranging from c. 15 to 90%, and was related to life history, habitat quality, and hydrologic events. Survival, which varied significantly among species and over time, was consistently higher in the dense and species‐rich core of the mussel assemblage, relative to the periphery because substrates were consistently more stable in the core of the mussel bed relative to the periphery. Substrate movement during low flows was an order of magnitude lower in the core relative to the periphery, and survival was inversely related to stability of river substrates. Patterns in habitat‐specific survival indicate source–sink population dynamics such that mussels in the core habitat provide recruitment to the periphery, but mussels in the periphery are subject to unsustainably low survival; additional studies to track the source of recruitment in the periphery are needed to test this hypothesis.
  4. Growth rate did not vary significantly between core and peripheral areas but did vary by species. Growth rate (proportional change per year) declined with age, and was similar at mean age for A. plicata (0.016 per year), P. sintoxia (0.015 per year), and C. pustulosa (0.013 per year), but much lower for O. reflexa (0.008 per year).
  5. Effective management decisions for mussels requires a better understanding of how vital rates govern populations and how they vary across a suite of physical and biological factors. Information on how population vital rates vary among species and over time gives managers another tool to understand how mussels may respond to management actions such as habitat restoration projects. Given the importance of substrate stability inferred from this study, management actions that maintain or increase substrate stability are likely to result in high quality mussel assemblages and may restore a valuable component of ecosystem function in this region.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Estimation of vital population rates to assess the relative health of mussel assemblages in the Upper Mississippi River
Series title Freshwater Biology
DOI 10.1111/fwb.13575
Volume 65
Issue 10
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center
Description 14 p.
First page 1726
Last page 1739
Country United States
State Minnesota, Wisconsin
Other Geospatial Upper Mississippi River
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