Zebra and quagga mussels have already caused more than $1 billion in damage in the Great Lakes region: they have clogged or covered everything from fish ladders and spillway grates, to irrigation and municipal water intakes, to dock pilings and outboard motors. In the process, native mussel colonies and small crustaceans such as crayfish often are smothered and destroyed.

For the Columbia River Basin, the costs could be equally staggering. The basin includes more than 30 hydroelectric dams and thousands of irrigation and municipal water intakes. It welcomes countless recreational boaters, anglers and swimmers each year.

Invasive mussels can affect entire ecosystems. Although they are individually small, large colonies can filter enormous quantities water each day. They consume algae and plankton, leaving the water looking clean and clear but disrupting the native food chain.

"These small animals have the potential to wreak hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic damage to the Columbia River hydroelectrical system, as well as impairing native salmon habitat and other food webs,” said Counihan.

 

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Needle in an aquatic haystack

Identifying the mussels early in their development is critical to mitigating economic or ecological impact. Microscopic mussel larvae - called veligers - float freely in the water for several weeks before attaching to a suitable surface. A significant amount of human skill and time is required to scan water samples and identify both the presence of veligers and their species.

Advanced particle analysis and imaging technology can quickly and accurately recognize the distinctive "Maltese cross” pattern of zebra and quagga veligers. WSU researchers are hopeful this new technology will give them an edge in the fight to protect the region.

"If we can standardize and speed up water sample analysis, we can look at more samples from more locations and hopefully take action before the mussels become a problem,” said Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, a professor at WSU Vancouver and co-investigator on the BPA grant.

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