Students ‘Mussel’ Up with Research in the River

Haleigh+Ward+conducting+research+in+the+Swannanoa+River.

Hannah Duncan/Echo Contributor

Haleigh Ward conducting research in the Swannanoa River.

When driving up to Warren Wilson College (WWC), it is almost easy to miss the brief view of the Swannanoa River as you gaze up into the mountains to the north. Once on campus, the river is just a short walk away from any of the academic buildings and plays an important role in the overall workings of the school. Still, it can be easy to forget the river is so close, especially when school starts to get busy.

For some students though, the river is always at the forefront of their time here. Take Warren Wilson senior Haleigh Ward for example. She is currently deep into her Natural Science Undergraduate Sequence (or NSURS) project, which focuses on a small, and extremely threatened invertebrate, the freshwater mussel.

“My main role is the monitoring that I’ve been doing over the past year, plus checking up on the mussels over the last couple of months,” Ward said.

As of 2020, many of the various native species of mussel that used to be found in western North Carolina rivers have disappeared from large portions of their natural range. According to Ward, mussels have been gone from the Swannanoa since around the late 1800s. These mollusks fill important roles in the health of aquatic ecosystems, including filtering out pollutants and stabilizing the riverbed. Their disappearance doesn’t bode well for the overall health of the river.  

However, all is not lost. A little over a year ago, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commision (NCWRC), in conjunction with WWC, began to finalize their plans to reintroduce two types of freshwater mussels to part of the Swannanoa River that runs through campus. In the fall of 2019, a hundred and twenty wavy-rayed lampmussels (Lampsilis fasciola) and forty creeper mussels (Strophitus undulatus) were released just south of the Warren Wilson College Road bridge in a 10 foot by 15 foot section of the river. After the release, the commission needed to monitor the mussels, primarily to gather more information about what makes a reintroduction successful and how the Swannanoa population may survive. This is where Ward comes in.

“I was trying to figure out what I was going to do for my NSURS and my main motivation was to do something that would have immediate real-world uses, ” said Ward, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

While taking a conservation course about western North Carolina with Professor Liesl Erb (also her faculty supervisor for the project), Ward participated in a field trip to the NCWRC’s hatchery in Marion, NC, where mussels are among the species bred and raised.

“I thought it was super cool and I got really into mussels,” Ward said. “I was like, ‘I wanna do something with this.’”

After finding out that the commission was planning the Swannanoa reintroduction for the fall, Ward committed to being a part of the project. Her role is to monitor how well the mussels are adapting to the Swannanoa and to see how they affect the environment they have been introduced to.

“My study has mostly focused on how they’re microhabiting the streambed […] to see how their distribution correlated to different substrate types and those that have different water flow, all these different little factors,” Ward said.

A student measures a mussel from the Swannanoa River. (Hannah Duncan/Echo Contributor)

In the last few times Ward went out surveying, she found few mussels in the plot where they were originally reintroduced. She explained that, in part, it can be difficult to find mussels. Surveying involves clambering into the river in order to search for a creature that looks almost exactly like a small rock, which is not an easy task. However, sometimes finding no mussels can give both Ward and the commission a better understanding of what these invertebrates need and where humans can help them. 

“I really feel like I’m going to have something that is going to be useful to the biologists at the Wildlife Resources Center,” Ward elaborated.

Furthermore, both Ward and Professor Erb believe that the project has potential to be continued.  

“Some of this comparative work [Ward] is working on, we could do a lot more with that, looking at some other traits of the rivers besides the hydrological record [for comparison],” Erb said.

It seems as though the NCWRC agrees. On Friday, October 16, twenty more creeper mussels were released into the Swannanoa and will be monitored for another year. Ward plans to hand off the project once she graduates, although she hopes to continue to do field work in the future.

“I have loved doing field work and I would definitely like to continue down the wildlife track,” Ward said. “Maybe it’ll be marine biology, I don’t know. Grad school is a little ways off for me.”

Ward may be leaving the school, but her work will remain a valuable baseline for future work with mussels on campus. It also serves as a reminder that the river is there, it is amazing, and it can be a wonderful resource, both recreationally and academically.

If interested in learning more about mussels, see this article from the Scientific American.