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Australia Native Glenelg freshwater mussels return to the river after being evacuated during bushfires

14:36  30 september  2020
14:36  30 september  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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As last summer's relentless fire season forced thousands of people and wildlife to flee, a very small, special aquatic animal was undergoing an evacuation of its own in Victoria's far south-west.

Scientists travelled out and gently collected dozens of small freshwater mussels from a river in the hope of ensuring the fragile species had a future as fires threatened its habitat.

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For eight months those mussels have been carefully tended to and kept alive in a lab environment in Melbourne, and yesterday they were returned home to a tributary of the Glenelg River.

Tarmo Raadik, a senior research scientist with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning's Arthur Rylah Institute, said returning the molluscs back to the water was "bittersweet".

"I've become quite attached to them over the eight months I've been looking after them," Dr Raadik said.

"But it's fantastic bringing them back to their country because the best place for them is in the environment they've grown up in."

The Glenelg freshwater mussels are unique to the area and remain critically endangered, but this small victory is being celebrated.

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As the molluscs were put back in the water, local Gunditjmara people, who have long had a special relationship with the region's natural environment, welcomed them back to country.

'Very endearing' mussels could be wiped out

Fires that razed parts of south-west Victoria over summer were not as destructive or widespread as those in the state's east.

But scientists realised the aftermath of fires that burned through thousands of hectares could affect the water quality of the Glenelg River and its tributaries, so they removed some of the mussels as an "insurance policy" for the species.

Dr Raadik has been working with the Glenelg freshwater mussels for years.

"We had been working with the animal, so we knew where they were, and it wasn't a difficult decision to make," he said.

"These mussels were once quite widespread in the Glenelg River system, but they've dramatically declined.

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"There's only about one large population left and two very small populations."

The mussels are small, about the size of an almond, and Dr Raadik described them as "very, very endearing".

"They seem to be quite sensitive to water quality changes and that is part of the reason why they are probably so restricted in range at the moment," he said.

"The muscles are confined to a really short area, and because they're confined to that short area, one threat could knock out the entire population.

"In this case, that would lead to extinction."

The mussels were first identified by a scientist in 1898, and since that time the population has dramatically declined.

Gunditjmara focus on restoring habitat

Shea Rotumah from the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owner Aboriginal Corporation said Gunditjmara people knew the mussels as Bochara Timbonn.

"They were pretty prolific and had various uses in our culture," he said.

"They were primarily collected by the women and children. Women used to go around barefoot in the water, feel around for them with their toes and pull them up."

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"They were used as knives and spoons and to make patterns on possum-skin rugs."

Mr Rotumah performed a smoking ceremony and placed some of the mussels back as they were returned to the water.

"Like us, when we're not on country we don't feel the best, so we're looking forward to them getting home," he said.

Mr Rotumah said agriculture, climate change, erosion and increased use of water for nearby timber plantations had put pressure on the species.

"There's only little pockets where they can survive at the moment," he said.

"We're looking to restore some of their habitat."

'Five-star health resort' for mussels

Dr Raadik said a team worked for months to provide the best conditions for the mussels to thrive in at an aquaculture facility in Melbourne.

"We're responsible for their entire atmosphere and environment," he said.

"It's a bit like we're looking after a spaceman who's gone for a walk outside a spaceship."

The dozens of evacuated mussels have been returned at the start of the breeding season to join the other mussels that remain in the river.

"They've been at a five-star health resort for eight months so they're really healthy, they've grown, they're ready to do what they need to," Dr Raadik said.


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