Scientific Name: Theliderma sparsa
Classification: Freshwater Mussel, Family Unionidae
- Federally Endangered in the U.S.
- State Endangered in Virginia
- Species of Greatest Conservation Need-Tier 1a on the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan
Habitat: Where it still occurs, the species inhabits isolated areas of shallow to deep runs and riffles (areas of moderate to fast flow) with gravel and sand substrate. Less than 50 individuals have been documented alive in the last 20 years, making it one of North America’s most critically endangered species.
Distribution: Remains only in a small section of the Powell River in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee. It has disappeared from other streams, due to poor water quality and habitat destruction throughout the upper Tennessee River Basin.
Due to its severely imperiled status, staff at DWR’s Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) in Marion teamed up with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) for a project focused on preventing the animal’s impending extinction.
Like other freshwater mussels, Appalachian Monkeyface requires a fish host to complete its unique lifecycle, where the parasitic larva must attach to the gills of the unsuspecting fish that ultimately distribute the babies along the river bottom. After testing over 40 fish species in 2020, the Blotched Chub (Erimystax insignis) was identified by AWCC staff to be its preferred host.
After studying its life history, AWCC successfully raised over 150 juvenile Appalachian Monkeyface in 2021 from these fish, that can now be released at restoration sites in 2022. This number may seem small or insignificant, but should be viewed as a crucial first step in the desired recovery of the species. Actually, this will be considered the most significant recovery action achieved for the mussel, since it was first listed by the USFWS under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. Several other mussels listed alongside it were already extinct by the early 1990’s, making this recent achievement a minor miracle in the eyes of officials! Small steps by the public can make all the difference for voiceless creatures, like the Appalachian Monkeyface.
Every citizen can do their part to help protect these fragile animals and their habitats, by not littering or polluting our freshwaters and by promoting sustainable land use practices along stream banks.
Species Profile Authors: Tim Lane, Tiffany Leach, Sarah Colletti, and Joe Ferraro
Last updated: August 19, 2023