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Texas State receives $2.3 million grant for mussel research study

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Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced funding for a $2.3 million research proposal by Texas State University. An official study will begin by the end of January.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is contemplating whether or not to place several species of freshwater mussels found in Texas on the federal endangered species list. Hegar provided funding for Texas State to conduct this research—a plan that has been in the making for quite some time.

“I’ve been working with the comptroller for several years on various projects,” said Timothy Bonner, lead investigator for the study and biology professor. “We have been talking about this research study for over four years, and now it is just beginning.”

From an ecosystems services perspective, mussels contribute tremendously to aquatic systems’ food webs. Mussels consume small particles and nutrients from the water column and sediments and convert it into biomass, which is then available to other consumers like raccoons.

“Loss of this service, the transfer of nutrients, is not well understood but could reduce function of aquatic ecosystems,” Bonner said. “Related to this, federal and state agencies have the obligation to protect and manage rare animals.”

Many mussels in Texas might be “rare” because of historical factors.

According to Bonner, it is thought that this rarity is due to the species evolving within the area from ancestral forms. Consequently, this fewness comes from other reason than human causes.

The five species of freshwater mussels being examined are the False Spike, Smooth Pimpleback, Texas Fatmucket, Texas Fawnsfoot and the Texas Pimpleback. The research will evaluate the amount of mussels in the Brazos, Colorado and Guadalupe River Basins, as well as consider the conditions needed to maintain the mussels’ habitat, what stressors the mussels react to and what they can tolerate.

The study is expected to be the most comprehensive of its kind in the Southwest Region, and will address key questions about freshwater mussels in Texas. The study will fill important data gaps in determining their need for protection.

The partnership will address voluntary conservation measures that, if needed, will protect the mussels while managing the impact to the state’s economy, according to Hegar.

“As we move forward, we must have cotemporary science able to us in order to develop collaborative approaches for the conservation of this research,” said Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest Regional Director for USFWS.

Bonner and his team of graduate and undergraduate students will be working with the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center to evaluate methods for deliberate breeding of mussels in hatcheries to increase their numbers, and reintroduction of those mussels to their native habitats.

“This research is the most expansive of its kind in Texas, and we at Texas State University are looking forward to working with Comptroller Hegar and our team of experts to gain greater understanding of freshwater mussels,” Bonner said.

Texas State will be working with other organizations such as the BIO-WEST, Inc., the USFWS and Auburn University located in Alabama.

“I’m thrilled about this opportunity,” Bonner said. “It’s a chance to get our students and the students of Auburn involved with hands-on research, and it’s good for the resource. We will be filling in many gaps of information that exist and that will allow us and the (US)FWS to know more about the mussels.”

The USFWS will make four of the proposed listing decisions by September 2018, as well as a fifth listing decision by September 2020.