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OTTAWA — The Canadian Museum of Nature is launching a project to count the mussels in the Ottawa River this summer as part of a pilot initiative mapping freshwater mollusk communities.
Mussels are among Canada’s most endangered animals. The Ottawa River is rich with the water-filtering creatures, which play an important role in keeping water clean and maintaining the ecosystem. The time has come, said Jackie Madill, senior research assistant at the museum and the project’s leader, to learn which species are present in the river, where they thrive and how healthy they are. That means she’s rounding up people to pull out their swimwear, snorkels and underwater notepads and start flexing some science muscle to identify some mussels.
The project will continue over a series of years to paint a picture of how mussel populations are shifting and adjusting to the constantly changing environment. The pilot mirrors initiatives conducted by researchers across the country trying to understand the 54 species of mussels present in Canada. The Ottawa River is home to at least 15 freshwater species, including some very rare species that are hard to find elsewhere. The benefit of volunteers is that each person tends to want to find as many species as possible, Madill said, so collectively they will have a good representation of the area.
“People just go instinctively looking for cute little things that they haven’t seen before, so you get a lot of diversity from that,” Madill said, who will also show volunteers pictures and samples of what to look for.
Madill plans to conduct at least one count a week at locations well-populated with mussels from close to Ottawa and upstream from here, including Brewery Creek in Gatineau, Aylmer and Champlain, and the Chenaux Rapids starting in August. Not every mussel will be counted, but a rough idea of where particular species of mussels are common will be recorded on maps.
Madill plans to record the numbers by having teams of volunteers collect mussels for a period of half an hour in mesh bags to get a rough distribution of the species in the area. The team will then calculate the density of the species in the area by putting a square quadrat — basically an empty metal frame — around a few representative stretches of riverbed and multiplying the ratio to get an estimate of the entire area. The method is called time searching and although it is not the most accurate, it will give Madill the information she needs to move ahead with research.
Madill has already received a huge response from university students who answered her call looking for volunteers with strong swimming skills, neat handwriting, good underwater eyesight and an interest in learning about the complicated mollusks.
The river’s native species of mussels are under threat from Ottawa’s development and from the aggressive invasive species called the zebra mussel. The zebra mussel was carried from Europe by merchant ships and thrives in limestone-rich areas, eventually choking native mollusks by sealing their “mouths” so they cannot feed and disrupting the food chain so entire ecosystems are destroyed. The species also has been known to severely damage drainage pipes. The thumbnail-sized species threaten many of southern Ontario’s water ecosystems and is partly responsible for wiping out underwater life in parts of the St. Lawrence River.
One theory is that most of the Ottawa River is safe because many parts of the river are acidic thanks to the Canadian Shield and zebra mussels do not like acid, said Ottawa field ecologist Dan Brunton. However, some parts that have limestone and calcium are brimming with the invasive species.
“If you see them, it’s actually quite pretty, like someone has sprinkled sparkles all over the bottom of the water,” Brunton said. “The St. Lawrence River is crystal clear, sparkling and beautiful because it’s dead.”
Although counting mussels may seem like a fun summer activity, Madill said, the volunteers will learn how aquatic ecosystems work and will help create a map of what the Ottawa River looks like now, and how it will change in the future. The Museum of Nature has collections that outline changes to the Ottawa River since the 1800s and Madill said the museum will decide whether the mussel information will be presented to school groups visting the museum, the discovery zone or other museum activities.
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