ST. CLAIR COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — A handful of a one-of-kind species of mussels are left in Alabama and they have recently gained endangered species protection by the U.S. government.

The Canoe Creek clubshell is a mussel found only in the Big Canoe Creek watershed in St. Clair county. The main vein of the watershed is Big Canoe Creek, which is over 50 miles long and flows into the Coosa River.

On July 5, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services granted protection to 36 miles of Big Canoe Creek and listed the Canoe Creek clubshell as an endangered species. A survey conducted from 2017 to 2018 recorded that only 25 Canoe Creek clubshells were found within the entirety of the watershed.

The Canoe Creek clubshell averages at about 3.5 inches long and has a dark-yellow to brown outer shell, an iridescent mother-of-pearl white inner shell, and a salmon-orange soft body. Adult mussels can live up to 35 years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services have specifically designated the protected miles of Big Canoe Creek as a critical habitat. They will also assist in aiding the repopulation of the species to ensure its continued survival.

Tierra Curry is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that protects endangered species through legal action and activism. She says the government protection of the Creek and clubshell makes a big difference in its future.

“Any major project that has a federal permit or federal funding that would affect this habitat will have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure that the mussel and its habitat aren’t harmed,” Curry said.

As a freshwater mussel, the Canoe Creek clubshell faces many threats to its livelihood. They are sensitive to water quality, so water pollution from land development and littering is especially harmful. Severe droughts and floods due to climate change also affect the waters they live in.

Another big challenge comes from how dams affect their unique reproduction. Adult freshwater mussels need not just a partner to procreate, but also healthy freshwater fish.

“[Adult mussels] have to get a fish to swim near them and then the juvenile mussel attaches to the fish’s gill,” Curry said. “[The juvenile] looks like a teeny tiny Pac-Man, and it’s parasitic on the fish until it drops down to begin life on its own on the river bottom.”

An adult mussel typically creates a fish decoy to lure a fish towards it. Once successfully baited, the mussel sprays the fish with its microscopic eggs that clasp themselves onto the fish’s gills. A video available on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s YouTube channel captures the process in detail.

Despite its small size and special living conditions, the Canoe Creek clubshell benefits humans and other wildlife in big ways. This clubshell is one of 36 native freshwater mussel species living in Canoe Creek that continuously filters the large waterway.

“They actually save cities money by filtering pollutants and algae out of the water, just by breathing and feeding there,” Curry said. “They improve water quality and they stabilize the stream bank.”

Canoe Creek clubshells are typically eaten by bigger animals such as herons, raccoons and river otters. However, it can also provide more than just sustenance to other animals.

“They are also used for housing by other little animals,” Curry said. “I had read about this before and one day, I picked up a mussel shell and there was actually a baby crayfish living inside the mussel shell. I just thought that was so cool that they actually provide structure for other animals.”

Alabama’s special relationship to freshwater mussels is a little known secret to most. The vast majority of the world’s freshwater mussels live in the southeastern U.S., and Alabama has more of them than any other state. However, the number of freshwater mussels is shrinking.

“Nearly 70% of all freshwater mussels are at risk of extinction because they’re so sensitive to water quality and because we’ve put in so many dams,” Curry said. “The dams can separate the mussels from their host fish and then the mussels can’t reproduce.”

Doug Morrison is the manager of the Big Canoe Creek Nature Preserve. He says locals have taken notice on how the dams impact catching game.

“You know, you talk to folks locally. They would say, ‘way back in the day, there were so many fish in [the Creek] to be caught but there are not so many today’ and, you know, I can’t pinpoint exactly what happened, but it was probably us [humans],” Morrison said.

Another species that faced hardship in the Big Canoe Creek watershed is the Trispot Darter. It was a species of fish believed to be extinct for 50 years before its renewed discovery in Little Canoe Creek in 2008. It was also granted endangered status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in September 2020.

Photo of Trispot darter (Photo courtesy of Bernard Kuhajda)

Morrison says it’s a mix of happiness and sadness to hear about the protection granted to the Canoe Creek clubshell, as the species endured many years of hardship before being recognized as something worth protecting.

“I’m glad that folks like the Center of Biological Diversity are around to lend a voice to these creatures, because they’re God’s creatures you know?” Morrison said.