"Actinonaias pectorosa" by Dick Biggins, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Public Domain

Nature’s ‘Brita Filter’ Is Dying and Nobody Knows Why

Dec 6, 2019

By Nathan Rott

On “good” bad days, the shells lay open at the bottom of the river, shimmering in the refracted sunlight. Their insides, pearl white and picked clean of flesh, flicker against the dark riverbed like a beacon, alerting the world above to a problem below.

“That’s what we look for in die-offs,” says biologist Jordan Richard, standing knee-deep in the slow-flowing waters of the Clinch River in southwest Virginia. He points at a faint shape submerged about ten feet upstream. “I can tell from here that’s a Pheasantshell, it’s dead and it died recently. The algae development is really light.”

The Pheasantshell is a freshwater mussel; a less-edible version of its saltwater cousin that spends most of its inconspicuous life part-buried in riverbeds, blending in with the rocks and filtering the water around them.

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