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Native Guide: Identify the local mussels that live around you with these handy apps

Native Guide: Identify the local mussels that live around you with these handy apps
February 18, 2020 Natasha Blakely
Photo courtesy of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

“Clam Counter” welcomes you with a wide-eyed, smiling orange mollusk waving from inside a bright blue shell.

It’s an app from Fisheries and Oceans Canada in partnership with the Toronto Zoo made to help children, families and everyday people learn about, identify and report sightings of native freshwater mussels.

The app has origins with a lot fewer cutesy illustrations and simple interactive questions. In 2012, Todd Morris and his lab developed the Canadian Freshwater Mussel Guide. Morris is a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Great Lakes Laboratory for Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

“Freshwater mussels are among the most endangered species in the world. Two-thirds of North American freshwater mussel species are endangered so that is the work I do on a regular basis, it all pertains to species at risk,” Morris said. “We offer an identification workshop every year, so we were looking for a tool for people to identify specimens out in the field after they left us, after the workshop.”

The Toronto Zoo and Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Clam Counter app

Around 2016, the Toronto Zoo approached Morris with the idea of an app where people could report sightings of mussels. The zoo has launched similar platforms; the “Bat App” teaches users about Ontario’s bats, and the Adopt-a-Pond Citizen Science app lets people report sightings of turtles and frogs.

Clam Counter, which launched in 2017 and is available in both the Apple App Store and Google Play store, combines the first version of Morris’s app with the interactivity of the zoo’s apps by providing an interactive identification guide with a way of reporting sightings and submitting photos of mussels.

How it works

For each species, there is a detailed list of characteristics, tips for identifying them, a number of photos of the outside and inside of the shells and a distribution map.

The app has a key that allows someone to answer a selection of yes-and-no questions to determine the species, using the GPS signal in that person’s phone to help narrow down the potential species. Users can choose whether they want to submit the information on the mussel to the app.

“It’s an information tool, to get that information out to the general public, to increase the awareness,” Morris said. “Freshwater mussels are not the most charismatic species that a lot of people see or understand, and I think people don’t appreciate the diversity or role these species play in the ecosystem.”

But the app also benefits Morris and his team in their research by helping them get more sampling and more accurate distribution data than they would be able to on their own.

The Toronto Zoo and Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Clam Counter app

So far some 700 people have downloaded and used the app, and about 150 people are regular users and contributors.

“In the last year or so we’ve had 45 different reports come in of species and location,” Morris said. “People don’t have to do that; they can choose whether they want to report. We’re looking for ways to increase usage and reporting.”

The app is focused on native mussels, so it doesn’t address the issue of invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels, though it does contain some information about the threat that zebra mussels pose to native mussels.

Though Clam Counter is a Canada-focused app, anyone can download and use it.

“Virtually all the species occur in the U.S. as well, so certainly it can be used that way,” Morris said. “The distribution data is obviously limited to Canadian distribution. You can still use all of the identification keys for species in the U.S., you would just not limit it geographically. The difference would be there would be some species in the U.S. that don’t occur in Canada.”

MusselID

For those in the United States who are interested in identifying their local freshwater mussels, the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society released the MusselID app last year in the fall.

“There’ve been a bunch of other species-identifier apps that had been developed and with there being so many American mussel species, we thought it might be a good idea to have one for mussels and provide outreach for the various North American mussel species that we’ve got,” said Susan Rogers Oetker, the app coordinator for the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society.

Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society’s MussellID app

Unlike Clam Counter, MusselID is currently just an identification guide. But the FMCS is looking into expanding it so people can submit photos and reach out to an expert for help with identification and even possibly adding machine learning so the app itself could help users.

MusselID focuses on species in the United States. Some of those species extend into Canada and Mexico, but the guide doesn’t cover species exclusive to those countries.

“People don’t really realize how many mussel species we have,” Oetker said. “We have about 300 different mussel species in North America. The general public just thinks ‘Oh, we have a few clams in the river.’ Providing the app will help people learn about the differences between species and learn about them and about conserving the waterways in which they inhabit.”

Featured Image:  Canadian freshwater mussels (Mucket, mapleleaf, pimpleback, deertoe, threeridge and fragile papershell mussels), Photo courtesy of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

1 Comment

  1. James Proffitt 1 month ago

    As soon as the Ballville Dam was partially removed on the Sandusky River in Fremont, Ohio, a small army of College students from Heidelberg University hit the rive upstream from the dam and rescued thousands of mussels and clams, relocating those that were stuck on dry land.

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