Updated April 07, 2018 14:34:43
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Extinction looms for a West Australian species of freshwater mussel with researchers fearing it could be extinct within 30 years unless efforts are ramped up to save the waterways where it is found.
Mussels could be extinct by 2050(ABC News)
Small populations of the Carter’s freshwater mussel can still be found in a diminishing number of waterways in the WA’s southwest, however a drying climate, rising salinity levels, population growth and pollution are putting pressure on the species which is described as “the lungs of WA’s waterways”.
Key pointsResearchers fear the Carter’s freshwater mussel could be gone within 30 yearsA drying climate, rising salinity levels, population growth and pollution are the biggest threatsFreshwater mussels are one of the most endangered groups of any animalsMussels play an important role in maintaining water quality
A 2015 study published in the Australian Journal of Zoology concluded the “range” of Carter’s freshwater mussel had declined by almost 50 per cent in 50 years while a secondary research study found populations had “disappeared completely” from 28 per cent of waterways where it had previously existed.
Murdoch University Associate Professor Alan Lymbery said there were “genuine concerns” the mussel would be extinct within 30 years if the downward trend continued.
“Where you do find them, you can see them in reasonably sized numbers so they don’t appear to be in trouble,” he said.
“However, 50 per cent of the populations that used to occur have now been lost and there’s no reason to think that rate of decline is decreasing, in fact we have recent evidence which shows it might be increasing.
“Taking that into account, we might think by 2050 this muscle could be extinct or certainly approaching extinction in the wild.”
Professor Lymbery said mussel populations in the south west were declining at a dramatic rate that was likely to have severe impacts on freshwater ecosystems.
“If we don’t do something about the decline of the mussel populations now it may be too late,” he said.
Professor Lymbery said the plight of the Carter’s freshwater mussel also mirrored that of other populations worldwide.
“Freshwater mussels are one of the most endangered groups of any animals or plants for that matter,” Professor Lymbery said.
“They are extremely vulnerable to extinction, they’re very slow to reproduce, they have a great mortality rate when they’re young so it’s very hard for mussel populations to reproduce themselves.”
Photo: Carter’s freshwater mussel are fed upon by local birds and water rats. (ABC Local: Anthony Pancia)
While the Carter’s freshwater mussel “doesn’t make for great eating,” Professor Lymbery said its role in the waterways was “drastically undervalued.”
“Freshwater mussels are known as a keystone species in that they filter an enormous amount of water as they feed, removing tiny particles like plankton, algae and microorganisms,” he said.
“If this species is lost from our rivers and streams, there is nothing else that will carry out the same function and that may have dramatic consequences for all freshwater life.
“During the summer and autumn months when many rivers stop flowing, freshwater organisms rely of refuge pools to survive.
“Mussels play an important role in maintaining water quality in these pools.”
Other Australian species already listed as Critically Endangered
Another Australian species, referred to as the Glenelg freshwater mussel is currently listed as Critically Endangered with studies concluding it was under threat from contamination of its habitat by “pesticide use, predation and habitat degradation by introduced Carp, bushfires and timber harvesting”.
The Glenelg freshwater mussel is said to be found in parts of the Crawford River, part of the larger Glenelg River in south-west Victoria, with as few as 1,000 left in existence.
Professor Lymbery said populations could be saved through the use of farming to create “insurance populations,” however it was not a method yet attempted in Australia and one fraught with difficulties due to the mussels’ particular breeding habits.
“It’s not easy because mussels have a pretty complex lifecycle,” Professor Lymbery said.
“The first stage of the mussel is actually a parasite on fish so you’ve got to do some pretty fancy things, but it’s been done, not in Australia but it’s been done quite a lot in the United States and quite a lot in Europe so the technology is there to breed mussels in the laboratory.
“Certainly achievable, just never been tried before in Australia.”
Public urged to take note
Local WA ecologist and Blackwood Basin Group chair Per Christiansen said “educating the public” on the plight of the species such as the Carter’s freshwater mussel was the first step in helping preserve it.
“The best friend of conservation is the public,” Mr Christensen said.
“If you can get the public onside, then they understand it, they’re prepared to put money into it and so on.
If the public doesn’t understand and they’re not interested, you’re never going to get any funding towards it it will go to all sorts of other things such as roads and railways.”
Mr Christensen said the were “sadly plenty of examples,” of seemingly “small, bit players,” in WA’s south west ecological make-up facing a similar fate.
“There’s a lot of wetland species that are going extinct, not only in the water but things like the Australasian Bittern that’s almost disappeared from the south west,” Mr Christensen said.
“These seemingly innocuous little creatures that you struggle to see in the cold light of day, all play a vital role in making-and keeping the environment so unique.”
Photo: “”They’re not big, they haven’t got fur they’re not cute really but what that doesn’t reflect is how vital they are to the ecosystem,” Professor Lymbery examines a Carter’s freshwater mussel. (ABC Local: Anthony Pancia)
Similarly, Professor Lymbery said “it’s a struggle” to keep adequate attention cast on species such as the Carter’s freshwater mussel when stacked up against “bigger, brighter and prettier” species facing a similar plight.
“I mean, they’re not charismatic are they?” Professor Lymbery said,
He held a dead mussel on the bank of a small, rubbish-strewn waterway in the south west town of Dardanup.
“They’re not big, they haven’t got fur, they’re not cute really but what that doesn’t reflect is how vital they are to the ecosystem,” Professor Lymbery said.
“Really these things are essential to healthy freshwater ecosystems and that means life to a lot of creatures, including people.”
First posted April 07, 2018 14:08:29