SCINQ BASICS: Mussels taste great, are full of nutrients, and were used to flay early English colonists in America (supposedly).

In the tapestry of aquatic life, mussels brilliantly illustrate resilience and grace. Under their humble shells, these industrious bivalves tirelessly filter and purify their habitats, safeguarding aquatic ecosystems. Simultaneously, they exhibit remarkable tenacity, anchoring themselves steadfastly to surfaces against the ebb and flow of tides. In the culinary world, mussels are a veritable delight – tender, briny morsels that carry the fresh taste of the sea. They grace our tables in diverse, delectable dishes, richly nourishing us with their high protein, vitamins, and omega-3 content. A toast to mussels, our unsung heroes under the sea and stars of our seafood platter!

Ingredient: Mussels.

Descended from: Mussels, as well as other bivalves (two-shelled mollusks), are thought to have evolved from an ancient group of marine organisms known as the mollusks. This diverse group, which also includes snails, squids, and octopuses, first appeared more than 500 million years ago during the Cambrian period.

The bivalves—mollusks with two hinged shells—emerged within this group around 500 million years ago. Over time, these early bivalves evolved into a wide range of forms, including the mussels we are familiar with today. This evolution involved adaptations to a variety of ecological niches, including marine, freshwater, and even terrestrial environments.

The bivalve’s shell, which is a defining feature of this group, is thought to have evolved as a form of protection against predation. The ability to close their shells tightly—something that mussels and other bivalves can do—would have offered a strong defense against the many predators of those ancient seas.

The mussel’s unique method of attaching themselves to substrates using byssus threads is another key adaptation, allowing mussels to colonize a range of environments—from wave-swept rocky shores to quieter estuaries and muddy lake bottoms. This has enabled mussels to become one of the most successful and widespread groups of bivalves.

So, in essence, mussels evolved from early mollusks, through a series of adaptations over hundreds of millions of years, which have allowed them to colonize a vast array of habitats and become an integral part of many ecosystems.

Domestication date: The process of domesticating mussels, or mussel aquaculture, is not like the domestication of terrestrial animals or crops, where the genetic makeup of the species is significantly altered over time. Instead, it involves creating suitable environments for mussels to grow, such as suspended ropes, mesh bags, or rafts in suitable waters, and then harvesting them when they reach a desirable size. The mussels themselves are generally the same species as those found in the wild.

The history of mussel cultivation dates back centuries, with early forms of aquaculture practiced by various cultures worldwide. The indigenous peoples of North America, for instance, are known to have harvested shellfish, including mussels, from managed coastal and estuarine environments for thousands of years.

Mussels. (CREDIT: Howard Herdi.)

However, the modern industry of farming mussels began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, blue mussel farming in the form of bottom culture (mussels growing directly on the seafloor) was documented in Boston Harbor as early as 1870. Over the years, the industry has become more sophisticated, with more efficient methods of farming developed.

One of the most significant advancements was the development of the longline system in the 1960s, which originated in Spain and France. The longline system, where mussels are grown on ropes suspended in the water column, allows for more efficient growing and harvesting of the mussels and reduces predation and damage from storms or rough seas. It also makes it easier to grow mussels in deeper waters, where there’s more room for aquaculture operations to expand.

The production of mussels continues to be a significant aquaculture industry worldwide, particularly in countries such as China, Spain, and the Netherlands. The methods of farming mussels continue to evolve, with ongoing research and development in areas such as selective breeding for desirable traits, improving farming systems, and managing the environmental impacts of aquaculture.

Properties: Some key characteristics of mussels include –

  • Shell – Mussels have two hard, protective shells that are typically dark in color (often black, brown, or blue). These shells are typically longer than they are wide, and can be somewhat oval or triangular in shape. The shells are connected by a hinge, and can be tightly closed to protect the mussel’s soft body inside.
  • Byssus Threads – Mussels are known for their ability to attach themselves to substrates using byssus threads, also known as “beard”. These are strong, fibrous structures that the mussel secretes and uses to firmly anchor itself to rocks, other shells, or any hard surface in their aquatic environment.
  • Size – The size of a mussel can vary greatly depending on the species, with some being as small as a few millimeters, while others can grow up to several inches long.
  • Habitat – Mussels can be found in a wide range of habitats. Marine mussels live in the intertidal and subtidal zones of oceans, often in colonies, while freshwater mussels inhabit lakes, rivers, and streams.
  • Feeding – Mussels are filter feeders. They draw in water, filter out plankton and other small particles of food, and then expel the filtered water back out. This ability to filter feed allows mussels to clean the water in their environment, but it also means that they can accumulate pollutants or toxins if they are present in the water.
  • Reproduction – Mussels have a complex life cycle that involves several stages. In many species, males release sperm into the water, and females then draw this in to fertilize their eggs. The fertilized eggs develop into larvae inside the female mussel, which are then released into the water. These larvae, known as glochidia, must then attach themselves to a host fish for a period before they can develop into juvenile mussels.
  • Ecological Role – Mussels play important roles in their ecosystems. Their filter feeding can help to improve water quality, and their shells provide a hard substrate for other organisms to attach to. Additionally, when mussels die, their shells can contribute to the structure of the habitat, and their bodies can provide food for other creatures.

Health benefits: Mussels are a nutrient-dense food that offer numerous health benefits, primarily due to their high content of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Here are some of the key health benefits –

  • High in Protein – Mussels are a great source of high-quality protein, which is vital for building and repairing body tissues, and plays a role in immune function and hormone production.
  • Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Like many other types of seafood, mussels are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These types of fats are known to promote heart health by reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the risk of heart disease.
  • Source of Vitamin B12 – Mussels are particularly high in vitamin B12, which is necessary for nerve function and the production of red blood cells. Vitamin B12 can also contribute to heart health by helping to lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that at high levels may increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Contains Iron – Mussels are a good source of iron, which is essential for the production of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.
  • Rich in Selenium – Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage. It’s also important for reproduction, thyroid gland function, and DNA production.
  • Source of Zinc – Zinc is essential for immune function, protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, and cell division.
  • Low in Fat and Calories – Compared to many other types of protein sources, mussels are relatively low in calories and fat, which makes them a good choice for those watching their caloric intake.

Dishes of Note:  Three particularly well-known mussel dishes –

  • Moules Marinière – This is perhaps the most famous mussel dish, originating from France. Moules Marinière translates to “Sailor’s Mussels”, and the dish typically consists of mussels cooked in white wine, garlic, shallots, and herbs. It’s often served with fresh bread to soak up the flavorful broth.
  • Moules-Frites – This dish is a classic in Belgium and is also popular in France. It consists of mussels (usually cooked in a similar fashion to Moules Marinière) served with fries (“frites”). The combination of seafood and fries is a staple in many coastal regions.
  • Zuppa di Cozze – This is an Italian mussel soup, where mussels are simmered in a tomato-based broth with garlic, white wine, and often a hint of chili. It’s a common dish in coastal regions of Italy and is typically served with crusty bread.

History: John Ratcliffe was an English adventurer and a captain of the early Jamestown, Virginia, settlement in North America. He was also the president of the Jamestown Colony for a short period. Ratcliffe’s life ended tragically during an interaction with the Powhatan Native American tribe in 1609.

According to some historical accounts and oral traditions, John Ratcliffe was invited to a Powhatan village under the pretense of negotiating trade of food supplies. However, it turned out to be a trap, and Ratcliffe was captured by the Powhatan tribe. The accounts state that Ratcliffe was then brutally tortured by the tribe.

As for the tradition involving mussel shells, the most common version of the story states that the Powhatan tribe used mussel shells to flay or strip the skin from Ratcliffe’s body. It’s important to note, however, that this is based on traditional stories and historical accounts, and the precise details of Ratcliffe’s death are not definitively known.

‘Jamestown: Massacre, 1622.’ / ‘The Massacre At Jamestown, Virginia, 1622.’ Line Engraving, 1628, By Matthaeus Merian. A 1628 woodcut by Matthaeus Merian published along with Theodore de Bry’s earlier engravings in 1628 book on the New World. The engraving shows the March 22, 1622 massacre when Powhatan Indians attacked Jamestown and outlying Virginia settlements. Merian relied on de Bry’s earlier depictions of the Indians, but the image is largely considered conjecture.

The relationship between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan tribe was complex and fraught with tension. Food scarcity, cultural misunderstandings, and territorial disputes led to frequent conflicts. Ratcliffe’s death is often cited as an example of the brutal violence that could erupt in these early colonial contexts.

This story was documented in an eyewitness account that is included in The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605–1614 (Real Voices, Real History), edited by Ed Southern (published 2004).

…when the sly old King espied a fitting time, cut them all off, only surprised Captain Ratcliffe alive, who he caused to be bound unto a tree naked with a fire before, and by women his flesh was scraped from his bones with mussel shells, and, before his face, thrown into the fire, and so for want of circumspection miserably perished.

While this is one recorded version of events, it should be viewed in context, acknowledging that the historical records from this time period, especially those involving interactions between European settlers and indigenous peoples, often reflect the biases and perspectives of the European writers, and may not accurately represent the perspectives or experiences of the indigenous peoples involved.

WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.

IMAGE CREDIT: Kendel Media, Nadin Sh, Arnaud 25.

🌟 Question everything and embrace curiosity with our ‘Live Long and Question’ shirt! 🤔💫 Let your thirst for knowledge shine while making a fashion statement. Challenge the status quo and ignite intellectual conversations wherever you go! Get yours now and join the quest for enlightenment!

Success! You're on the list.

Large-scale proteomics in population-based studies from UK and Iceland.
In an article revealed today in Nature, scientists  from deCODE Genetics, a subsidiary …
These robots helped understand how insects evolved two distinct strategies of flight.
Robots built by engineers at the University of California San Diego helped …

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: