Interview With a Zebra Mussel: A mollusk invader shells it out | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Interview With a Zebra Mussel: A mollusk invader shells it out 

Published May 22, 1996 at 4:00 a.m. | Updated October 13, 2015 at 12:12 p.m.

Let's face it: Zebra mussels are a pain in our collective butt. They clog up intake pipes, they're covering up those picturesque shipwrecks on the bottom of the lake, they pile up like a tackle at the five-yard line on nearly everything that isn't moving. They're hogging a food supply that our mussels are supposed to eat, and are trying to remodel the lake's ecosystem to suit themselves.

Michael Hauser, Vermont's zebra mussel education specialist at the Lake Champlain Basin Program, confirms that the invading mollusk is one tough customer. Even the Pentagon is helpless. Nobody, from the President on down, really has a clue what to do, but everyone agrees it would be better if we had not let the things slip across the border in the first place.

Frankly, the zebra mussel is a threat to the American way of life, and if somebody doesn't put a stop to it soon, we're screwed.

Seven Days was able to grab an exclusive interview with what appeared to be a representative mussel on its way to lunch. If what follows tells you anything about the little buggers, please email someone important immediately. As Hauser would say, spread the word, not the mussels!

Seven Days: So, I assume you're called zebra mussels because you're striped?

Zebra Mussel: Yeah — we'd prefer to be compared to tigers, but no one asked.

SD: Where did you come from?

ZM: Well, my folks are from up river...

SD: The St. Lawrence?

ZM: Mais oui. But my ancestors go back to the Mediterranean, southern and eastern Europe. We hopped a freighter to emigrate here.

SD: I've heard it's pretty nice off the coast of France. Warm. Sunny. You must miss the old country. Ever think about going back?

ZM: Nope.

SD: When did your, uh, folks arrive in the U.S.?

ZM: 'Bout 10 years ago. Your people first spotted us eight years ago near — whaddya call it? — Motor City. Lake St. Clair, I believe it was.

SD: And you spread through the Great Lakes, the interconnected waterways of North America into the Mississippi and Ohio river systems. When did you reach Lake Champlain?

ZM: Oh, around 1993.

SD: Fast work. You guys make like bunnies.

ZM: How's that?

SD: You're so, well, procreative.

ZM: Ah, yes, we do have a way with the ladies.

SD: How exactly do you...

ZM: You American journalists are so nosy. But if you must know: One glance at us studs and the ladies let fly with a few thousand — give or take a few — eggs. Naturally, the sight of all that fertility gets us pretty worked up. We ejaculate a few million sperm nearby, and presto! Some of us get lucky. Coupla days later, we've got a whole batch of little veligers swimming out on their own.

SD: Veligers? That's what you call them?

ZM: Well, I call them the kids.

SD: So then what happens?

ZM: So then the kids start to form their own shells and they settle somewhere and, basically, we never hear from them again. The little ingrates.

SD: We have that problem — except in our case, they come back when they need money. But about this settling thing: Why do you have to glom on to boat motors and clog up pipes? Don't you know what a nuisance that is for us?

ZM: Hey, a mussel's gotta hang his hat somewhere.

SD: You don't wear a hat.

ZM: Whatever.

SD: But why do you all have to pile up on each other? I've heard there can be up to 700,000 of you guys per square meter.

ZM: What can I say? Family values.

SD: How do you manage to hang on so tenaciously?

ZM: We've got these string-like things called byssal fibers, and they're really sticky, see? We're basically homebodies, so once we "glom," as you put it, we usually stick around.

SD: Literally.

ZM: Huh?

SD: Never mind. So, what do you eat?

ZM: Oh, phytoplankton, detritus, you know — anything lower than us on the food chain.

SD: They say your presence in Lake Champlain can alter that food chain by starving or suffocating native mussels — among other things.

ZM: Well, it's no worse than what your people did to the natives when they came over.

SD: Touché. But your presence might ultimately threaten other species in the lake by unbalancing the whole environment. Why, local fish can die simply by eating you — you're supposed to be full of toxic stuff.

ZM: Humpf. Look who's calling the kettle black.

SD: How does it feel to know that millions of dollars are being spent to figure out how to eradicate you? Do you know Vermont has a guy who specializes in plotting your death? Do you like being considered a scourge to our ecosystem, including people who own boats and pretty homes by the lake?

ZM: I really couldn't care less. And I think you're getting a little hostile.

SD: Sorry. But isn't there any way you could be persuaded not to settle here?

ZM: Well, if the digs aren't up to snuff...

SD: You mean if the environment becomes unsuitable somehow, or if you can't find enough to eat or...

ZM: Yes, yes, yes. We do require lots of vitamin-packed plankton, lots of calcium. A guy's gotta keep up his shell. And we don't like the water to be too cold.

SD: Really? How the heck do you survive Lake Champlain in the winter?

ZM: We just sort of hibernate, shut down for a few months. Some of us don't make it, but that's the way the cookie crumbles ... But we're nothing if not adaptable.

SD: Do you know that scientists are trying to figure out ways to interrupt your reproductive process — basically, to distract you from releasing sperm at the same time your females release eggs?

ZM: Fat chance. We don't like football.

SD: So what are your plans for Lake Champlain?

ZM: Well, I've been looking at a nice little piece of property over by Malletts Bay.

SD: You mean the part of the lake where your kind hasn't penetrated yet?

ZM: Ayup. I figure, I only got three, four years ... may as well get it while I can. Raise a few million kids, start some developments.

SD: But that's so ... irresponsible.

ZM: Hey, dude, tough tooties! I'm an American now.

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is a cofounder and the Art Editor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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