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U.S. Scientists Warn of Threat to Waterways From Invasive Zebra Mussels

Zebra mussel image.jpg
A moss ball sold in pet stores containing an invasive zebra mussel.

Invasive Zebra Mussels are being found in pet stores across the country, raising fears of a potential outbreak in Massachusetts waterways.

The black-and-white striped mollusks are only about the size of a thumbnail, but the non-native species breeds quickly, and they seem to have hitched a ride from Ukraine, where they are native.

Wesley Daniel, a federal fisheries biologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), said the mollusks have been found inside ornamental moss balls that are sold in pet stores and often added to aquariums.

“They can easily just attach with byssal threads, which you can think of as like harpoon ropes, onto any kinds of surfaces,” he said. “And so they’re attaching themselves to these moss balls and hitchhiking across the Atlantic to the U.S.”

Scientists have been tracking Zebra Mussel invasions -- which have primarily been caused by the mollusks attaching themselves to boats— since 1990. The unusual thing about this invasion is that the destructive shellfish have been discovered in pet stores in at least 21 states, including Massachusetts, which has triggered nationwide alerts.

“They can colonize within pipes; they’ve been known to block water flow to industry, including power plants; and they can block the flow to agricultural irrigation systems,” added Daniel. They’re also known to destroy food webs by starving out other filter-feeders, leading to the loss of bigger, more-prized fish.

Daniel said people who find Zebra Mussels and larvae in home aquariums should destroy the mollusks by placing them in boiling water for at least one minute, freezing them for at least 24 hours, placing them in diluted chlorine bleach, or submerging them in undiluted white vinegar for at least 20 minutes. They must be destroyed before they’re disposed of, he emphasized.

“This is the type of species where once they’re established, they’re nearly impossible to get rid of,” he said. “So the best step to stopping this invasion is through prevention.”