for National Geographic News
Dr. Seuss could not have come up with better names for five endangered mussel species that inhabit the Big South Fork National River.
The Cumberland elktoe, Cumberlandian combshell, tan riffleshell, and two pearlymussels, the little-wing and the Cumberland bean, all cling to life in the silt of this waterway, which straddles Tennessee and Kentucky.
Although the five species are the rarest, all the waterway's mussels are in danger. Where 50 to 70 species once thrived, today only 26 species remain.
Well-known environmental pressuresmining, logging, and pollutionoccur here, as does a more obscure threat: the crush of horses' hooves as recreational riders cross the river.
A vast mussel "baby-making" operation, however, may now be giving the species their last, best hope for survival.
Since 2002 the U.S. National Park Service has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, other federal and state agencies, and two mussel hatcheriesthe Virginia Tech Aquaculture Facility and the Kentucky Center for Mollusk Conservation.
The consortium aims to breed freshwater mussels and reintroduce them to the Big South Fork. Through an intricate and exacting process, about 80,000 juveniles have already been reintroduced to the river. Many more mussel births are planned.
"Big South Fork is a real biological treasure," said Steve Ahlstedt, a retired U.S. Geological Survey biologist who has worked on the recovery effort. "It has the best mussel fauna that's left among many hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of streams."
"This is the last stronghold," he added. "This is the seed stock for mussel recovery, and if we lose that seed stock, then we're out of business."
A century ago, the luminescent shells of freshwater mussels were nearly as valuable to the button industry as their pearls were to jewelers. The mussel industry was lucrative for decades. But eventually the bottom fell out as mussel beds were depleted.
It took years for mussel populations to recover. But they did, thanks in large measure to federally protected riverbank areas, such as the Big South Fork.
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