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Putting Muscle in the Bay

Atlantic ribbed and hooked mussels are Chesapeake’s Brita filter

Keryn Gedan works in the SERC lab comparing how quickly hooked mussels and oysters can remove plankton from the water. <<photos courtesy of Smithsonian ­Environmental Research Center >>

Mussels are more than a seafood dish in buttery broth. Unlike those delectable mussels, our Chesapeake Bay mussels are small and tough. Our two native species, the Atlantic ribbed mussel and the hooked mussel, serve environment rather than appetite. Both are believed to be key indicator species of the health of the Bay.
    These filter feeders have a leg up on oysters. Due to their smaller size, they can catch the smaller plankton Picoplankton.
    In doing that job, mussels have been credited with filtering out twice as much plankton as do our oysters, Crassostrea virginica. That’s according to research conducted in 2015 by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientists Denise Breitburg and Keryn Gedan and Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Lisa Kellogg (www.vims.edu/newsandevents/topstories/mussels.php).
    “Hooked mussels were also twice as effective as oysters at filtering picoplankton,” says Breitburg. The tiny picoplankton are particularly abundant in the Bay in summer.
    Lifespans upward of 15 years mean our mussels have long careers. They do their work in the Bay’s most dynamic environments near the water’s edge, helping to reduce sediment. They are also part of the Bay food chain, feeding crabs, shorebirds and ducks.
    You might see these hard-working mussels on the roots of underwater grasses or on hard surfaces like oyster shells, pilings and boat bottoms.