Organizations Create 3D Models of Imperiled Freshwater Mussels

Mussel Models Produced in Joint Effort by Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Florida Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Scientists and imaging specialists will help save freshwater mussels, one of the most endangered classes of organisms, using 3D imaging technology. With funding provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center (NCTC), imaging experts are now creating 3D-models based on specimens from the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution.

Once complete, the models will be freely available online to educate the public about these amazing yet little-known creatures that dwell in rivers and streams across the United States. The models will also be used to train conservation biologists to identify all 300 species of North American freshwater mussels. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) will use 3D-printed mussel shell replicas in its nationally recognized education program, as well as other public outreach opportunities, to help inform the public about how mussels improve water quality. The 3D models of mussels native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed and CBF’s mussel outreach work are supported by Chesapeake WILD funding administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. This is one of the first projects supported by the Chesapeake WILD program, established by Congress in 2020 to aid restoration efforts in the Chesapeake watershed.

Joe Wood, Senior Scientist for CBF, said:  

“Freshwater mussels provide incredible benefits for water quality and habitat, yet many people know very little about these hidden heroes of rivers and streams. Raising awareness is key. Giving someone the opportunity to hold a lifelike mussel shell in their hand is an important step towards protecting and restoring freshwater mussel populations.”  

John Pfieffer, curator of bivalves at the Smithsonian Institution, said: 

“The U.S. is a globally important hotspot of freshwater mussel biodiversity. Many of the country’s freshwater mussels are at risk of extinction. Roughly one out of every three species are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and another 30 species are thought to have recently gone extinct.”

Matthew Patterson, Course Leader, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Conservation Training Center, said: 

“This project is very exciting because it provides opportunities to teach field biologists and the public how to identify all of the freshwater mussel species native to the United States, including the nearly 100 species listed as threatened or endangered. And all of this is happening in 2023 as the Endangered Species Act is turning 50 years old.”

Zachary Randall, biological scientist and manager of the Florida Museum’s digital imaging division, said:

“The use of photogrammetry has been prominent in cultural heritage studies for a long time, and the biological sciences have recently hopped on the bandwagon, realizing the power it has to visualize a specimen's external features and color in 3D. That’s what this method really excels at.”

Kenny Fletcher 90x110

Kenny Fletcher

Director of Communications and Media Relations, CBF

[email protected]

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