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The Science Of Spread: SubSurface Episode 2

Today, we’re diving into what we know about the mussels - what are they, where did they come from, how did they get here? What can we do to stop them from spreading? We’re trying to understand how those microscopic mussel babies ended up in two Montana reservoirs last summer -- and what our options are if more of them arrive. In this episode we’re tackling the Science of Spread.

From Montana Public Radio, this is SubSurface, Resisting Montana’s Underwater Invaders. I’m Nicky Ouellet, and today we’re going on a mission of science discovery.

Why is every fourth grader in Montana learning about the life cycle of quagga and zebra mussels? Well, we think we found them for the first time in Montana last summer in two reservoirs east of the Continental Divide, Tiber and Canyon Ferry. These mussels are highly invasive. There are beaches in Wisconsin and Michigan that are covered in feet of razor-sharp shells. Nationwide, drinking water facilities, hydropower dams and agricultural irrigators pay tens of millions of dollars each year because the mussels damage their equipment. Lakes with zebra and quagga mussels are changing in ways we don’t fully understand yet, and that could mean trouble for fish. We talked about what’s at stake when mussels invade in the first episode of SubSurface, Reporting from the Future.

I’ve heard a lot of people tell the story about invasive quagga and zebra mussels; how the tiny bivalves infested the Great Lakes and kept spreading, damaging boats and pipes, cutting up feet and messing up lake food chains. Of all the people who have told me the mussels’ story, one person tells it especially well, in a way I still think of when I’m trying to tell it. That person, is Paula Webster.

Last spring, Paula told this story to elementary school students from all over western Montana at a river honoring near Ronan. Paula is the water quality program manager and tribal member from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation.

The kids are sitting in the middle of field on the shore of the Lower Flathead River, waving their arms around and yelling things like “veliger!” and “byssal thread!” Paula kind of urges them on, tells them to say new words out loud and mimic little hand motions to help them remember. It totally helps.

Paula starts leading the kids around in a circle, acting out the mussel life cycle.

"I'm a veliger. Repeat. I'm microscopic. I'm floating around. Oh I'm growing! I'm getting a shell. I'm growing a byssal thread. Ohhhh yeah. Let’s find our chair. And connect our byssal."

That’s pretty much it for a mussel. They start out really tiny as a veliger, float around for  a couple of weeks while they grow a shell, settle onto a hard surface using byssal threads, and filter feed for a couple years.

Tune in now to learn more (and hear the mussel song!).

Do you have a question about Montana's underwater invaders? Want to know more about how zebra and quagga mussels spread, how Montana is confronting the problem, or how states like Wisconsin and Minnesota are dealing with them? Leave your questions in the comment section here, or contact us on Facebookor Twitter. We'll do our best to answer them, and may include your question in a future episode.

SubSurface is a production of Montana Public Radio, with financial support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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