The Big Picture: Zebra mussels are invading coastlines everywhere.

CREDIT: Holger Krisp.

Zebra mussels are a type of freshwater mollusk that have been causing quite a stir in North America since they were first discovered in the Great Lakes in the late 1980s. These small striped creatures are only about the size of a fingernail, but they can have a big impact on the ecosystems they invade.

One of the most concerning aspects of zebra mussels is their ability to reproduce rapidly and in large numbers. They can lay up to a million eggs per year, and their larvae can drift downstream and colonize new areas quickly. This means that once zebra mussels get established in a body of water, they can be very difficult to eradicate.

Zebra mussels are filter feeders, meaning they strain tiny plankton and other organisms out of the water to eat. While this might not seem like a problem at first glance, it can actually have far-reaching consequences. Zebra mussels can outcompete native species for food, which can disrupt entire food webs. Additionally, their filtering behavior can cause water to become clearer, which can allow sunlight to penetrate deeper and promote the growth of algae and other aquatic plants.

In addition to ecological impacts, zebra mussels can also have economic and social consequences. They can clog water intake pipes and damage infrastructure, which can be costly to repair. They can also make beaches and other recreational areas unpleasant or even dangerous, as their sharp shells can cut swimmers’ feet.

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