Endangered Higgins’ Eye mussel may be a thing of the past

Endangered Higgins’ Eye mussel may be a thing of the past


By Bill Heft

Savanna, Ill.—If a collected number of US and state agencies have their

way, in a few years the Higgins’ Eye Mussel may begin the move off the endangered species list. On May 21, these agencies released 900 Large Mouth Bass in Spring Lake in a total of 30 steel cages, 30 bass to a cage. The fish were prepared at the Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin.

“The cages will remain on the lake bed for at least a year,” said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Biologist Technician ranger Mark Pfost. Pfost also explained in his presentation that even though Spring Lake is technically a lake, it does have moving water because it is fed by the Mississippi River. “Understand, this is not a brand-new type of endeavor. It was utilized as far back as the 1930s, so there is a great deal of hope attached to the program,” said Pfost.

The Higgins’ Eye Mussel (Lampsilis higginsii) was first identified in 1857, with one of its characteristics being the mother-of-pearl coating on the inside of its shell. It has been on the endangered species list since 1976. It is golden-olive brown with dark rings and green and orangish rays. Shell interior is coated with white or pink mother-of-pearl, or nacre. We can associate it with the clam or conchs family. The Higgins’ Eye Pearly Mussel is 3 to 4 inches in length, and lives mostly in the upper regions of the Mississippi River, Rock River, Lower St. Croix River (in Wisconsin), and Lower Wisconsin River.

An experiment is being conducted at Spring Lake, just south of Savanna,

Ill. Spring Lake is a man-made lake, that before 1924 was a small pond. Turned into a 3,000-acre lake, it became part of the Upper Mississippi wetland area in Savanna, Il.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s, biologists from the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources have planted eggs from the Higgins’ Eye Mussel onto the gills of Large Mouth Bass, and then released the bass into Spring Lake. In a week or so, the eggs (glochidia) will drop from the gills of the bass, and it is hoped that young mussels will hatch and increase. Actually, as strange as it may seem, this is how the Higgins’ Eye Mussels give birth to their young. The females would normally do this by releasing the sperm-like eggs into the water when they sensed any Large Mouth Bass near them. The bass then act as a host, as the larvae attaches itself to the gills of the fish until the larva drop off onto the bottom of the river. The Higgins’ Eye Mussel can live up to 50 years.

Because of the introduction of the lock and dams, and with the dumping of many kinds of pollutants into the Mississippi and other rivers in this area, the population of the Higgins’ Eye Mussel has reached near-extinction levels. The introduction of the Zebra Mussel into our ecological system has also taken a heavy toll on the Higgins’ Eye.

The Higgins’ Eye is important to our freshwater, fast-moving rivers because each mussel gets its food source by filtering gallons of water every hour through its body. It is one of nature’s ways of keeping our rivers clean. This is also the reason why the lock and dam system has adversely affected the mussel, as it has slowed the current of the rivers.

The Higgins’ Eye Mussel has played another important role, that being in

the economy of the United States, starting in 1887. A German immigrant, J.F. Boepple, started what became a multimillion dollar pearl button industry on the upper Mississippi. Within thirty years, 200 U.S. plants were manufacturing pearl buttons, stamping and polishing them from the valves of 40-60,000 tons of freshwater mussels every year. The Higgins’ eye mussel was considered a good button shell because of its thick valves, but was never as industrially important as the more common ebony shell. Two Illinois plants around the turn of the century that enjoyed moderate success were one in Dixon on the Rock River, and one in Savanna, on the Mississippi River. After World War II, the advent of plastic buttons wiped out the pearl button industry. The last plants closed in the 1960s.

One last fact about the Higgins’ Eye Mussel is that although it was never considered a gourmet delight, freshwater mussels shells have been used by American Indians for jewelry and tools such as spades, spoons, hoes, and single-edged razors.

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