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You hear a lot about how zebra mussels are bad for Minnesota’s lakes and rivers. How are native mussels different from these invasive species?

Minnesota has about 50 native mussel species, and they are specially adapted to benefit our aquatic ecosystems. Some native mussels can live for decades, while zebra mussels live only a few years. Native mussel larvae must attach to a fish host for the early stage of life, as compared to zebra mussels that simply release larvae into the surrounding water. Using sticky threads, a zebra mussels attaches itself to native mussels or other underwater objects, while a native mussel uses a foot to burrow into the river or lake bottom.

Both native and zebra mussels can form large colonies, but their effects on the surrounding ecosystem are quite different. A key difference is that invasive zebra mussels filter out food that would ordinarily be consumed by fish. Native mussels, on the other hand, primarily filter out bacteria and fungus without intercepting food for fish. In fact, native mussel colonies create biological “hot spots” that favor other macroinvertebrates, which in turn provide food for fish. They essentially function like a freshwater coral reef. Mike Davis, DNR river ecologist.

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