A New Freshwater Mussel Species - Meet Uwharries Elktoe

Written By

A team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and North Carolina Natural Resources Commission biologists recently discovered and described a new species of freshwater mussel.

Led by Jason Mays, Asheville Ecological Services Field Office, North Carolina, and Nathan Whelan, Warm Springs Fish Technology Center, the team recently reported their finding in the peer-reviewed journal Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. The new species is found in the New River and Uwharries River drainages in the Uwharries Mountain region of North Carolina. This region was the inspiration for the name of the new species, Alasmidonta uwharriensis, Uwharries Elktoe. The paper describing the species can be read here.  

The new species resembles the brook floater (Alasmidonta varicosa). In fact, the species was first identified as unique while gathering data for the Brook Floater Species Status Assessment. Non-lethal buccal swabs were used to obtain genetic material from the mussels. Those swabs were then sent to the Southeast Conservation Genetics Lab, part of the Warm Springs Fish Technology Center, to generate genetic data for phylogenetic inference and systematics. Five whole individuals were also collected to serve as voucher specimens. Phylogenetic data clearly showed that Uwharries Elktoe was a distinct, and at the time undescribed, species.  

The process of discovering a new species is exciting for any biologist. After genetic data confirmed that the mussel from the Uwharries Mountain region was a valid species, the team performed what is probably the best part of discovering a new species, naming it. However, a species description is more than just coming up with a new name. Genetic data were submitted to public repositories, and the new name had to be registered with the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Type specimens, the individuals that serve as the reference for the species, had to be deposited in a natural history museum. For this species, types were deposited at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. The specimens will serve as a permanent scientific resource for current and future biologists studying the exceptional freshwater biodiversity of the southeastern United States.   

The freshwater fauna of the Uwharries Mountain region is poorly studied. Therefore, the region may still harbor unknown species. The Service and North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission biologists continue their collaboration to better understand the animals of the Uwharries Mountain region. More exciting discoveries from the area should be expected in the future! 

By Nathan V. Whelan, Southeast Conservation Genetics Lab, Warm Springs Fish Technology Center, Georgia