2012-2013: Nature Beneath Our Feet
MVFN celebrates 25 years encouraging love and knowledge of nature at recent Spring Gathering
by Iain Wilkes
The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) held their Annual General Meeting at the Almonte Civitan Club on May 16th followed by a very successful ‘Spring Gathering’ event. The AGM was conducted by Ken Allison, President of MVFN with attendance by the Board and club members. Ken provided the membership with an overview of the organizations activities and finances over the last year. This is the Club’s 25th year as an organization and during that time it has been very active promoting the understanding and awareness of the natural world in our community, with its popular natural history lectures series, canoe, hiking and birding outings, environmental programs for children and youth, and strong support for local conservation issues. The Treasurer, Robert McCook presented the finances which show a well managed club which can continue to be very active. Ken introduced each of the board members for the coming year, and of special note is that Cliff Bennett, one of the founding members has once again been elected to the Board where he will serve as Vice-President for 2013-14. Cliff has been very actively involved with MVFN from it first days and will ensure it continues to be a vibrant and relevant organization.
The AGM was followed by the well-attended and exciting ‘Spring Gathering’ event. Starting with the reception; old friends and acquaintances shared drinks and chatted; many visited the Young Naturalists exhibit, the Reduce Plastic Bag campaign table and made bids on the Silent Auction items. The Almonte Civitan Club did an excellent job of providing top notch service and a very tasty meal. A special thanks to all the volunteers, especially Rosemary McGinnis, this years’ event co-ordinator for MVFN.
Guest speaker at MVFN’s Spring Gathering event, Éric Hébert-Daly (right), Executive Director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, is thanked after his presentation by Iain Wilkes, MVFN’s newly elected Publicity Chair. Photo Pauline Donaldson.
The Master of Ceremonies, Iain Wilkes, MVFN’s new Publicity Chair and well-known leader of the Carleton Place Christmas Bird Count, enthusiastically guided the group through the evening culminating in a talk by Éric Hébert-Daly, Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Éric provided a passionate and insightful look at how conservation work was done traditionally such as through protected area campaigns, local land trusts, and re-naturalization projects, and he explored how we might be more efficient and successful in the years to come through a shift towards a focus on ecological integrity, and methods such as land-use planning, network (vs. islands) planning, multilateralism, and First Nations involvement to name a few. Eric fielded many interesting questions after his presentation, reflecting that our community is very engaged when it comes to the environment and conservation.
It was a very successful and enjoyable evening, and everyone is reminded to put May 15th on their calendars for next years’ gathering. This summer, ongoing MVFN activities include the canoe/kayak program and annual summer walk, and the clubs’ monthly natural history lectures resume with a new series in September. Please see mvfn.ca for details of these upcoming activities and for membership information.
Amongst those present at MVFN’s recent Spring Gathering was the clubs first President Ken Bennett. Ken and Cathy Keddy, current Program Chair, shown with pieces of the celebratory ‘25 years of nature’ cake. Cliff Bennett (left), one of MVFN’s founding members and newly elected as Vice-President for 2013-14, is seated next to Brenda Boyd, MVFN’s Chair of Environmental Education, at MVFN’s Spring Gathering. Photos Pauline Donaldson.
Nurturing our national nature in Canada’s National Parks, a lecture report by Mary Robinson
At the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) 25th anniversary Spring Gathering an inspirational presentation “Looking Back and Looking Ahead: Nurturing Our National Nature” was presented by Éric Hébert-Daly, National Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). This year CPAWS celebrates 50 years of its collaborative approach to conservation. By keeping in touch with 13 chapters active locally across Canada they see national tendencies. They have helped protect over half a million square kilometres of wilderness by helping government, industry and First Nations. Approximately 90% of Canada’s lands and waters are public, but only 10% is protected; CPAWS’ long-term goal is to increase this to 50%.
In his presentation, Hebert-Daly talked in depth about three key shifts in the approach to conservation in Canada’s National Parks in the last 25 years. These three key shifts are: a shift in focus to ecological integrity instead of visitor experience, a shift from unilateralism to multilateralism in planning and decision making, and a shift from islands to networks with respect to interconnection and geography of protected areas.
Challenges to keeping a focus on ecological integrity
In discussing the first shift, Mr. Hébert-Daly spoke about Canada’s first national park, Banff National Park, created 127 years ago. When the railway was being built into the west, workers discovered the wonderful hot springs at Banff. When the government heard about this natural wonder they realized it could be a great attraction for visitors to Canada, especially Europeans interested in the ‘wild’ nature of Canada. At that time, wilderness with its untouched natural beauty represented the countries ‘soul’ and could be used to show-case Canada. This was the primary reason the National Park program began.
In time, more parks were created and activities such as camping, hiking and canoeing became synonymous with Canada’s parks. People loved them and came from all over the world. Infrastructures to support the cars, campers, food and waste had to be created. Eventually we began to lose sight of the ecological values of our parks and the environment and wildlife people were coming to see started to disappear.
CPAWS came into existence in 1963, to monitor and save the nature within the parks and preserve it for future generations. In the 1980s and 1990s CPAWS and local partners in Banff pushed hard to prevent Park encroachment by developers of the Banff town site.
This led to a National Panel on the Ecological Integrity of our National Parks. Scientists and conservationists came together in a consensus report recommending that ecological integrity become the first priority in park management; the National Parks Act was changed accordingly. Scientists were hired by Parks Canada, and ecological monitoring and measurement became a reality. This model was the first in the world and was adopted by other countries such as Korea, the U.S. and Australia.
Looking forward, however, this priority is being challenged. Parks Canada has suffered massive cut-backs and scientists have been “shown the door”. As a result, the monitoring and evaluation in Canadian Parks is not taking place. Moreover, developmental pressures in our National Parks are being felt again. The private sector is getting involved in ways that are not always successful. To illustrate, Mr. Hébert-Daly showed a slide of the Jasper Discovery Walk – a massive glass-bottom platform, overhanging a cliff in Jasper National Park. The intent is to offer visitors an unobstructed view of wildlife. However, animals such as mountain goats, who are natural climbers, will not migrate into an area with an artificial overhang such as that. This example shows we still need increased vigilance regarding development and infrastructures within our parks. Another problem is that boundaries of the parks are not recognized by wildlife. At this point, Eric showed a slide of a baby caribou, possibly within a National Park. Not only do we need to protect what is inside the Parks, we also need to consider the impact of development outside the Parks. Our speaker showed a slide of Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is a proposal for oil fracking oil off the coast, just 100 metres outside the Park. Clearly, we need buffer zones around the Parks, including coastal and marine buffer zones, so the entire ecosystem remains healthy and survives.
Unilateralism to Multilateralism in Consultation and Planning
The second big shift around conservation efforts was the shift from a unilateral approach to planning and decision making to one that is multilateral and includes all ‘stakeholders’. In the early 1900’s park creation was done on a very ad-hoc basis without much logic or thought, sometimes with a reckless “wild west” mentality. Later, in the 1970’s more thought was put into the big picture and a decision was made to create a network of National Parks representing each of the distinct eco-regions in Canada. Presently there are 42 National Parks, and 26 of the 39 distinct ecoregions are represented. It was revolutionary to develop such a concept that would drive park creation nationally.
In the past, indigenous First Nations communities were ignored in the creation of Parks. Hebert-Daly related a story from the 1970s, about a small Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation community on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake accessible only by boat or plane. People from Ottawa made an unannounced visit and informed the community leader of their plans to develop a National Park there. He listened and then escorted them back to their plane and asked them to leave. From then on Hebert-Daly says, “to those First Nations people, the word ‘Park’ became a ‘four-letter’ word” as they feared for their right to their land and the conversion of their home lands into a public campground. The approach to conservation in those years was clearly unilateral and many ‘bridges were burned’. In recent years, the process is much more multilateral. Time is taken to consult those impacted and the decision to create a national park is lengthy. However, when there is an upwelling of community support for it, things can happen quickly, and remain inclusive.
For example, the same community on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake is now in negotiations with Parks Canada to create a co-managed National Park where they will be the interpreters and lead the eco-tourism initiatives. A new 30,000 square kilometre park to be named Thaidene Nene (Land of the Ancestors) is to be announced soon. This will be a fully co-managed National Park and an economic model for future generations. Hébert-Daly showed a slide of the beautiful Ts’akui Theda (Lady of the Falls) waterfalls within the proposed Thaidene Nene. It is a traditional pilgrimage and spiritual site for healing and prayer. A traditional story, explains that centuries ago First Nations people out hunting for a giant beaver that was destroying their homeland, left behind a beautiful woman. She had asked for some of the beaver blood but was not given any, so she stayed behind at the falls to heal and console people. Large ancestors of modern day beavers lived thousands of years ago in the area and skulls of these massive animals have been found.
A waterfall in beautiful Thaidene Nene, a 30,000 square kilometre proposed National Park near the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. It will be a fully co-managed National Park and an economic model for future generations. Photo David Murray
A shift from islands to networks (but including some urban islands)
The third shift in conservation approach is from islands to networks. In the past efforts were made to protect a particular ecologically, culturally or spiritually significant area on its own. However, there needs to be interconnectivity, between individual areas or islands in order to create networks which will maintain ecological integrity, for example for adequate migration and mixing of individuals within a population. Remember the baby caribou? Creating a Caribou Recovery Strategy is only the first step in caring for this species. We need to take care of entire eco-systems to ensure survival of herds.
We need to look at the bigger picture. Land-use planning, considered by many a boring topic, will be critical for examining the landscape as a whole. All relevant players should be at the table deciding on the best possible use of the land. Where are the resources of interest and the conservation values? How can viable economic development, roads and infrastructure, and ecological integrity co-exist.
We need to examine what we value in our culture. We tend not to attribute an economic value to two of our most important resources: clean water and air – the very things that keep us alive and healthy. CPAWS is supporting David Suzuki and his 30 x 30 Nature Challenge for Canadians to get outside in nature for 30 minutes for 30 days in May. This is increasingly important when approximately 80% of Canada’s population lives in the cities and our population is becoming increasingly diverse with immigrants arriving from places which did not offer experiences of wilderness or familiarity with the benefits for wildlife and people.
Canada is fortunately taking interesting approaches to ensuring that everyone can get ‘back to nature’. This includes creating some island parks which are not connected to others, but will nevertheless serve a vital purpose. Rouge National Urban Park, in the middle of Toronto, is a new National Park which will be Canada’s first National Urban Park. While it will not be able to, nor will it be required to, maintain the same ecological standards as other national parks, it will have a huge benefit by virtue of a huge population at its doorstep.
Canada protects less than 10% of its public lands and only 1% of its oceans. Only four years ago, Australia was like Canada with minimal protection of its oceans but now Australia protects 35% of its oceans. So things can change if the will is there.
In conclusion, we have established some amazing protected areas in Canada over the last 127 years, and we have learned a lot along the way. However, we need constant vigilance to establish and maintain the ecological integrity of our park lands and waters. We cannot act unilaterally to protect places without risking creating barriers to future success. We are all inter-connected with our natural environments and our public natural areas need to be planned and managed at a broader scale than we have done so far.
Éric Hébert-Daly (right) National Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society inspired us with his “Nurturing our National Nature” talk on historical shifts in approach to conservation in Canada’s National Parks. He is shown here with Iain Wilkes, MVFN Board member and MC for the evening, Photo Pauline Donaldson
The following is a summary of key questions posed to Hébert-Daly following the presentation:
Where does CPAWS get its funding? The funding is from individuals and foundations. CPAWS does not rely on the government; therefore they can be critical of the governments, when required, and complimentary when merited.
What is the status of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement? The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement includes 9 environmental organizations signed with 21 forest companies who are members of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC). Under the Agreement, FPAC members commit to the highest environmental standards of forest management and conservation, while environmental organizations commit to global recognition and support for FPAC members efforts (reference http://www.canadianborealforestagreement.com/). Unfortunately, it is very hard to implement. The third anniversary of the Agreement is this Saturday. Depending on what happens in the next short while, there may be an announcement that CPAWS is very frustrated with certain aspects of the situation.
We have to ask what we are going to do with this landscape at the broad level. There is a lot of information out there but is has never been put together. We need to take the information and overlay it. For example, take Alberta and its Boreal Forest. When they overlaid where the caribou travel and where the forest, oil and gas areas are, it was discovered that all could take place in Alberta at the same time.
Who would be responsible for doing this overlay of existing information? That should be done by the Federal Government as it has responsibility for anything that crosses the provincial boundaries. Almost all resources belong to the provinces and implementation of conservation efforts has to happen at the provincial level.
What about the Budget cuts to the National Parks? That is a question of philosophy. There is an undermining of the scientific capacity at the federal level – almost as if they are thinking if we don’t know certain things – we can ignore it.
What are possible future areas for Parks?
• Mealy Mountains in Labrador –to protest a large portion of boreal forest, tundra and shoreline on the Labrador Sea.
• Parc national Tursujuq – to become the biggest national park in Quebec and the biggest in eastern North America
• Lancaster Sound – a national marine area in the Arctic
• Southern Strait of Georgia in BC – a national marine conservation area
• Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve – at the east end of Great Slave Lake
• Other possible areas include the South Okanagan in BC, and areas in Manitoba and Nova Scotia
What can a small organization like MVFN do? In answering this question posed after his talk, Hebert Daly said “Never underestimate the power of the written word.” A group like MVFN and its individual members could take the time to write letters or emails on specific environmental issues. Such actions can be very powerful. When many people are sending the same message to government and other officials they tend to pay attention. Be on the email list for CPAWS or other similar organizations and respond when requested.
The speaker shows her mussels at natural history talk, a report of the April 2013 MVFN lecture report by Jim Bendell
At a recent natural history lecture in Almonte, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) welcomed ‘malacologist’ Jacqueline Madill, Senior Research Assistant, Zoology, Research and Collections, Canadian Museum of Nature as guest speaker for the MVFN 2012-13 ‘Nature Beneath our Feet’ lectures. Madill’s subject was the important but little-understood or appreciated, ‘Native Fresh-water Mussels of the Ottawa Valley’ and she brought many several favourite specimens to the talk. About one-third of the worlds’ mussel species live in North America, with 55 species in Canada, of which 41 are found in Ontario. Madill reminded us first thing that we should not pick up mussels from the river bottom; each species inhabits only a specific water zone and they have limited locomotion. Not only that but freshwater mussels are considered one of the most endangered group of species in North America, with 67% at risk!
Mussels and Clams belong to the family Mollusca (derived from Latin: soft), a very large group of soft-bodied animals that also includes the Chitons, Tooth Shells, Snails and Slugs, Oysters, and the Nautili, Squids and Octopuses! Look them up and be amazed! In abundance and diversity, they are second only to the Arthropods (which includes Insects), and were among the first creatures on earth. Mussels and clams range in size from barely visible to approximately 20 cm in length. Both are bivalves living in a box of two shells. Think of the Blue Mussels or clam chowder you last ate at the fish restaurant, said Madill. Two limey (mainly calcium carbonate) shells enclose their ‘bivalve’ body in a box that may be opened or closed for passage of water, and protection. This structure reflects the life of a sedentary animal (or couch potato), no head or limbs but a muscular foot that provides anchorage and infrequent locomotion. About the body is a mantle that produces the shell and aids in growth and reproduction. Within the body there are various organs that work as in our own. Most important are the gut and gills that act in feeding, as part of a giant filter.
Madill and others assess Mussel biodiversity and numbers in local lakes and rivers as part of their work. Hinge structure and other features are used for identification and often identification can be made just by the feel of the shell underwater. Mussel species may vary in numbers from zero, to a few, to such an amazing density one cannot walk without treading on a shell. Here they earn the names ‘Heelsplitter’ and ‘Ouch’! Other more ‘happy as a Clam’ individuals are Rainbow, Warty Back and Maple Leaf. Eastern Elliptis is a very common species locally, and others such as a Cylindrical Papershell found in Quebec, had not been seen since the 1830’s.
Why mess with mussels? Well, we must agree that water is fundamental to life. Here in the Ottawa Valley we are well supplied with five major rivers and many smaller streams, and so should have abundant clean water and excellent aquatic life. But if we are to sustain and improve our standard of living we must care for our waters. And the study and care for Mussels and Clams are part of that concern because these little-known animals give many ecological benefits. Perhaps the most significant is their filtering; an individual may ingest and clean 3 liters of water per hour, removing toxic chemicals, excess nutrients, harmful bacteria and viruses, and importantly light blocking matter. They also provide benefit by mixing sediments as they slowly move. They provide food for fish, muskrats, shorebirds and others. Also since some mussels are quite long lived, many living decades, they carry within their tissues a useful record of biological and chemical changes in the environment. As they age annual rings form in the shell as in a tree. According to Madill, some Eastern Pondshells can live 200 years!
But why are Mussels so endangered? At one time, commercial harvest and disruption from log drives reduced their numbers, but these are not ongoing. Now the sermon; sadly, and to our peril, the current plight of bivalves reflects the damage we have done and are doing to water and its inhabitants. Mussels need clean, clear running water relatively high in oxygen and water bodies connected to maintain stable levels and flow, provide nutrients, and permit dispersal of the young. In turn, the density and persistence of these creatures are good indicators of healthy waters. Main disrupters are dams and locks that restrict flow and cause extreme fluctuation in temperature and levels of water. According to Madill, it can take 50-100 years for an area of mussels to be reestablished once it has been disrupted. Mussels are also particularly sensitive to pollutants of many kinds which include fertilizers from lawns and cropland. Many large water bodies and waterways have been made uninhabitable by channeling, loss of near shore habitat, and choking with litter and debris. Another significant threat has been the invasive Zebra Mussel, perhaps the most damaging to our native bivalves, as well as to human infrastructure such as intake pipes. It appeared in the Great Lakes in 1988 on ships from Middle Europe. Of incredible reproductive capacity, one female can produce 30,000 to 1,000,000 larvae annually. Madill noted that Mussels of the Rideau River have suffered a ‘double whammy’ from Zebra Mussels and the rapid and alternating water levels due to the canal locks. In 10 years Zebra Mussels have spread throughout the Great lakes smothering large beds of native bivalves.
Another issue raised by Madill’s was the intriguing connection between the decline of particular Mussel species and the decline of biodiversity in local fish. The explanation is as follows. Mussels and clams live partially buried in sediment with little traveling about, which potentially restricts their distribution. The problem is solved by some Mussel species which produce specialized larvae, called glochidia (from the Greek: pointed or hooked), that are shed in clouds, manage to attach to the gills of a particular species of host fish, and so are transported. They then drop off in new habitat suitable to both fish and Mussel. For example, the female Pocket-Book Mussel extends its mantle, the tip of which is shaped, marked and moves like a small fish. This attracts a desired larger fish for a lift. When the fish ‘takes the bait’ the Mussel ejects a puff of glochidia that attach to the gills, thus obtaining a convenient taxi for its young! Other species mimic a worm to attract a ‘ride’. Check out Youtube.com for videos of some of these creative mussel displays, says Madill.
What can we do to improve the health of our waters and native fresh-water Molluscs? How can we make a Mussel as “happy as Clam?” If you would like further information, please contact our speaker, she welcomes inquiries and can be contacted at the Canadian Nature Museum Research Building in Gatineau or via email An excellent reference guide to local Mussels is by J. Metcalfe-Smith, A. MacKenzie, I. Carmichael and D. McGoldrick, Photo Field Guide to the Freshwater Mussels of Ontario, 2005, published by the St. Thomas Field Naturalist Club. Other useful references for general information on the zoology and ecology of Mussels and Clams include on-line information on Mussels of Eastern Ontario at pinicola.ca and books by Clarke, A. H. 1981, The Fresh Water Molluscs of Canada. National Museum of Natural Sciences, National Museum of Canada, and T.I. Storer and R. L. Usinger, 1957, General Zoology, McGraw-Hill, Toronto.
Jacqueline Madill (left) spoke about the important but little-understood or appreciated, ‘Native Freshwater Mussels of the Ottawa Valley’ and brought many of her favourite Mollusca specimens to the talk, such as the Eastern Elliptio, a very common freshwater Mussel. Photo Pauline Donaldson
April 19, 2013
MVFN Spring Banquet: Celebrating 25 years!
NOTE: MVFN’s Spring Gathering 2013 tickets ($30), must be purchased in advance by Friday, May 10, 2013. Tickets may be purchased in Almonte at Gilligallou Bird (Heritage Court, Mill St.), in Carleton Place at Read’s Book Shop (Lansdowne Ave.), in Lanark at Lanark Living Realty (George St.) and in Perth at The Office (Wilson St. E.). Please contact MVFN’s Brenda Boyd (; 613.256. 2706 for further information or to reserve tickets.
The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN), founded in the spring of 1988, will celebrate their 25th anniversary at a banquet—their fourth annual Spring Gathering 2013. The evening will include a keynote presentation entitled, “Looking Back and Looking Ahead: Nurturing Our National Nature,” which will be given by Éric Hébert-Daly, National Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
The stunning landscape of proposed Thaydene Nene National Park—over 33,000 km2 of boreal and tundra landscape located around and beyond the shores of the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. Photo Clara Hughes
Regardless of the nature of our passion, it seems we often fail to fully appreciate one accomplishment before moving on to the next task, and often we do not reflect sufficiently upon the path of past successes. MVFN’s Spring Gathering 2013 evening and talk by Hebert-Daly will be an opportunity to celebrate our spectacular national, provincial and territorial parks, and to reflect upon the protection of these natural treasures.
Looking back…who were the people, what were the events, and which places stand out in the history of Canada’s natural heritage conservation? Take our national parks, for example. Our first national park, Banff, was created in 1885 when tourism and commercialization were its key mandates. It was not until the National Parks Act of 1930 that our parks became places of preservation. Further, 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of ecological integrity as the guiding principle for managing our national parks. These are but a few of the many milestones in Canada’s 128-year national park history. What other landmark events can you recall?
Looking ahead to 2038—the next 25 years—how should we proceed to nurture our national nature? Which elements of our natural heritage most need our attention and what have we learned about nurturing nature over the last quarter-century? There has been a major shift in our understanding of best practices for shaping our natural legacy as Éric will describe. How do we fit into this picture?
MVFN invites you to Spring Gathering 2013, to look back and look ahead along the path of nature conservation while enjoying a showcase of gorgeous examples of Canada’s natural beauty—including places many of us know only through photographs.
MVFN’s Spring Gathering 2013 will take place Thursday May 16, 2013 at the Almonte Civitan Community Hall, 500 Almonte St. (just west of Highway 29), Almonte. The reception will begin at 6:00 pm, and at 6:45 the banquet, followed by the presentation, will take place. Tickets ($30), must be purchased or reserved in advance by Friday, May 10. Tickets may be purchased in Almonte at Gilligallou Bird (Heritage Court, Mill St.), in Carleton Place at Read’s Book Shop (Lansdowne Ave.), in Lanark at Lanark Living Realty (George St.) and in Perth at The Office (Wilson St. E.). Please contact MVFN’s Brenda Boyd (; 613.256. 2706 for further information or to reserve tickets.
Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists
April 5, 2013
Jackie shows mussels at next MVFN lecture
The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists’ (MVFN) 2012-2013 public lecture series, Nature Beneath Our Feet, continues April 18 with the seventh presentation, ‘Freshwater Mussels of the Ottawa Valley.’ You do not need to be an expert to enjoy the presentations, just possess a curiosity or appreciation for wild nature. Cottagers, hunters, fishermen, canoeists, hikers, campers, artists and seasoned field naturalists alike will find something to interest them as we explore nature. Refreshments are offered at each lecture.
For this lecture, we switch to the aquatic realm beneath our feet with a presentation by Jackie Madill, senior research assistant with the Canadian Museum of Nature. You will have an opportunity to see first hand her collection of shells from mussel species we are likely to find in our area. As a malacologist, she specializes in Canadian freshwater mussels. She also is a hirudinologist, having a love for Canadian leeches. (In addition to her scientific expertise, please note that Ms. Madill is highly allergic to scented products such as perfume, soap, and shampoo. Before attending her presentation, MVFN asks that you not put on or use these products.)
Mussels belong to the group Mollusca which also includes snails, slugs, clams, scallops, oysters, squid, and octopuses. All these organisms have in common a soft body, no backbone, a muscular foot for crawling or burrowing, and a mantle. In mussels, the mantle produces a pair of hinged shells (often people refer to them as clams).
Among aquatic invertebrates, mussels are the longest-lived (many decades) and the largest, reaching 20 cm (8 in.) in length! They can be aged approximately by counting the growth rings on their shells.
Did you know that close to one-third (300) of the world’s mussel species occur in North America? Of the 55 species that occur in Canada, 41 are found in Ontario. In addition, we also have the zebra mussel, native to the Caspian Sea. It was introduced in ballast water released into Lake St. Clair in the mid-1980s and has spread throughout eastern North America. It has contributed to making freshwater mussels the most endangered organism group in North America. In Canada, more than half of our freshwater mussel species require conservation action.
Although mussels are found in many aquatic habitats, such as rivers, ponds and streams, they are hidden beneath our feet as names like pink heelsplitter, white heelsplitter, and creek heelsplitter suggest. Many, however, have been given more amusing names: rainbow, deertoe, rayed bean, hickorynut, threehorn warty back, snuffbox, mapleleaf, pimpleback, and elephantear. A tremendous pocket field guide, Photo Field Guide to the Freshwater Mussels of Ontario, was published in 2005 by the St. Thomas Field Naturalist Club.
In the same way beavers can be thought of as ecological engineers, mussels are known as ‘living filters.’ In their natural unpolluted state, beds of aquatic habitats can be carpeted by mussels. Mussels fed on algae, bacteria, and detritus that they filter from the water with their gills. In turn they are food for mink, otter, raccoons, and muskrats as well as some fish and birds. As filter-feeders, mussels are sensitive to pollution and habitat alteration which makes them good indicators of environmental quality.
Out of sight, but not out of mind—ouch! Prepare to look for mussels on your next aquatic outing by learning to recognize our common species. Mark your calendar “MVFN mussel show, NO PERFUME” for April 18, 2013, when Jackie Madill will present Freshwater Mussels of the Ottawa Valley. This event takes place at 7:30 pm at Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte. All are welcome ($5 fee for non-members). For further information please contact MVFN’s Program Chair Cathy Keddy at 257.3089.