CBU Biology Team Finds New rare Yellow Lampmussel Population in Cape Breton

Kelly White (center) holds a Yellow Lampmussel. Accompanied by Lauren Douglas (left) Alicia Penney (right).

Kelly White (center) holds a Yellow Lampmussel. Accompanied by Lauren Douglas (left) Alicia Penney (right).

Kellie White, a senior lab instructor in the Department of Biology at Cape Breton University, along with her research team, recently made an exciting discovery in Forrester’s Lake, Cape Breton.  What they found was a pile of bright yellow shells from the rare Yellow Lampmussel, a freshwater mussel that is listed as a species of “special concern” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Until recently, only two Canadian populations had ever been discovered, one in New Brunswick’s Saint John River and a second in Cape Breton’s Blackett’s Lake. In 2012, a third population was discovered in Pottle Lake, North Sydney.

“We knew what we were hoping to find, but we didn’t know we’d stumble upon it so quickly and in one of the first lakes we checked,” says White. “These two newly found populations are important for this rare species, not just because they represent additional Canadian populations but also because of the protections afforded to Pottle Lake, as a potable water source, to protect the Yellow Lampmussel and its habitat.”

For the past two years, Kellie and her team have been carrying out this research, funded by the CBRM Water Utility and the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, within Pottle Lake and Forrester’s Lake. They have been gathering vital information that will aide in conservation of the Yellow Lampmussel in Cape Breton. Their research also examines how freshwater mussels contribute to the high water quality of Pottle Lake (the water supply for North Sydney).

“Freshwater mussels filter both the water column and sediment, feeding on bacteria, algae, and plankton,” explains White. “We estimate that there are currently 5.5 million mussels in Pottle Lake. Each mussel can filter between 0.5 – 1 litre of water per hour, so the mussels in Pottle are filtering between 66 and 132 million liters of water per day.  At this rate, the entire volume of Pottle Lake would be filtered by the mussel population every 74 – 148 days.”

This summer, White’s team will continue to examine the filtering capacity of freshwater mussels in Pottle Lake. White’s team will also be investigating the important role that fish play in the life cycle of the Yellow Lampmussel, as lampmussel larvae must attach to the gills of a fish and travel with it for a few weeks before being released to begin their adult life on the lake bottom. The mussels don’t harm the fish and it’s thought that this “piggy backing” aides in the distribution of the mussels throughout the lake (as they have very little mobility themselves).

In other locations the only fish species found to serve as a suitable host for Yellow Lampmussel is White Perch. White’s team will be sampling fish in Forrester’s and Pottle Lake to determine if White Perch serves as a host for these populations as well. White and her team are also interested to see if the invasive fish species, the Chain Pickerel, is found in Pottle or Forrester’s lake. Chain Pickerel has recently been discovered in Blackett’s Lake and potentially threatens the survival of the Yellow Lampmussel there.

To support this effort White is also launching a “Bring us your Fish Heads” campaign, encouraging anglers who catch fish in Blackett’s Lake, Meadows Brook, or the upper Sydney River to donate their fish heads to the CBU fish host study.  The team will examine the gills for the presence of Yellow Lampmussel larvae.

Kellie White’s work not only helps in the conservation of the Yellow Lampmussel but also helps teach CBU students about ecology. In addition to employing students to assist with this research, White also incorporates her research into her Ecology and Animal Behavior labs at CBU. White adds, “These types of projects allow students to learn how to conduct scientific research by participating in important local projects.” This year Kellie hopes to have students from her second and third-year labs co-author and publish research papers on Cape Breton Yellow Lampmussel populations.