Long-term decline of native freshwater mussel assemblages in a federally protected river

Daniel J. Hornbach, Daniel C. Allen, Mark C. Hove, Kelly R. MacGregor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Freshwater systems are increasingly threatened by human impacts. To effectively monitor and manage these systems, reference or baseline conditions need to be documented to establish restoration or management goals. Freshwater mussel (Unionoida) communities are in decline in many river systems worldwide. Yet there are few long-term quantitative studies in relatively “pristine” habitats that could serve as “reference” locations. Here, we present the results of a 20-year quantitative monitoring study of mussel assemblages in a federally protected river in the United States. We found significant declines in mussel abundance (41%) and species richness (16%) over the 20-year period, while mussel species evenness and Shannon's diversity index values increased over time (19.3% and 12.1%, respectively). This, combined with an analysis of community composition change trajectories, suggests the declines were disproportionately higher for common species than for rare species. Variation in life-history traits of macroinvertebrates is often used to assess the degree of degradation of aquatic systems. Using Haag's (2012) classification of mussel life-history traits, we found the proportion of opportunistic species (fast growth, high reproductive output, short lifespan) decreased by 65.3%, while the proportion of equilibrium species (slow growth, long lifespan, lower investment in reproduction) increased by 54.6% and the proportion of periodic species (moderate-to-high growth rates, low-to-intermediate fecundity, lifespan and age at maturity) increased by 82.4%. There were modest changes in human population and land use in the catchment during our study period, and a change in the operation of a hydroelectric dam reduced discharge variability. Sediment size changed at several study sites, increasing at some sites while decreasing at others. This study occurred in one of the best-protected and most pristine rivers in the upper Midwest of the United States, harbouring one of the region's most intact mussel fauna that could be used as a “reference” to set goals for the restoration of mussel fauna in other river systems. Despite the high quality and protection of this river system, we found slow declines in the mussel community but found no evidence that changes in land use, flow regime, water quality, the spread of invasive species or increased sedimentation were responsible for these declines. The slow decline of mussels and lack of specific causes in such a river underscore the imperilment of this fauna, and the need for more aggressive conservation, management and research approaches.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)243-263
Number of pages21
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
While no specific agency funded this long-term study, many grants funded specific, short-term projects allowed the collection of the data that constituted this study. Funding for these short-term projects came from the Blandin Foundation, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, US National Park Service, US Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Legislative Commission on MN Resources and Macalester College. Over 50 Macalester College undergraduates participated in collecting these data and we appreciate their dedication to this project. We also thank the anonymous reviewers who provided helpful advice in improving this manuscript. The authors confirm that they have no conflicts of interest to declare.


  • community structure
  • freshwater mussels
  • life-history traits
  • long-term monitoring
  • reference conditions

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