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Pollution history documented through shell remains provides tool to study ecosystem change

(Blacksburg, Va.) -- In the early 1900s, there were 42 species of freshwater mussels in the North Fork of the Holston River in Southwest Virginia. There were 33 downstream of Saltville. Now there are only nine species of mussels downstream of Saltville, and none directly below Saltville. When Virginia Tech geosciences student Megan Brown of Colonial Heights, Va., decided to study the local extinctions of these creatures, some of which have been known to live 200 years and many of which are endangered species, she didn't want to have to use the traditional means of pulverizing them to measure chemical uptake.

At the joint meeting of the Northeastern and Southeastern Sections of the Geological Society of America, Brown will report on her non-invasive means to determine whether pollution or environmental stresses are threatening freshwater mussels. The GSA meeting is March 25-27 in Tysons Corner, Va.

Brown measured the mercury content in freshwater mussel shells in the river near Saltville, Va., where industry had polluted the river from 1950 until 1972, measured the damage done to the shells, and observed stages of recovery.

She looked at two sites upstream, unaffected by the pollution, at a site at Saltville, the point of the contamination, and at two sites downstream. "There was a very low level of mercury in shells upstream. I had to go 30 miles downstream to find a site with mercury levels at the background levels of the upstream sites," Brown says

Dead mussel shells reflected the levels of mercury, with high levels directly below Saltville and decreasing levels with increasing distance from Saltville. Brown examined shells to see if those from areas with no living populations looked different from shells in areas with living populations. She observed such characteristics as whether shells were still hinged together, external luster, edge preservation, and how broken they were.

"Wear could have been due to
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Contact: Susan Trulove
strulove@vt.edu
540-231-5646
Virginia Tech
27-Mar-2004


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