The Hickorynut Mussel and the Sturgeon

Date: | 2024-06-18 19:31:28

The Ottawa River, known as the Kichi Sibi by the Anishnàbeg Algonquin people, is a significant watershed that straddles the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. It’s the source of drinking water for more than 2 million people who live along its shores. But beyond its significance to humans, it also supports a rich tapestry of life, including the endangered Hickorynut mussel.

Mussels play a crucial role in river ecosystems as filter feeders. They help improve water quality by filtering out suspended particles, algae, and other organic matter, which helps maintain clarity and nutrient balance in the water.

In partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the First Nations, the Canadian Museum of Nature is currently undergoing a study of the mussel population of this great watershed.

Katriina Ilves, Ph.D.


Canadian Museum of Nature

We are looking at the link, or the potential link, between the Hickorynut mussel and the Lake Sturgeon. In particular, we’re looking for evidence that the mussel uses the fish to complete its life cycle, where the larvae, called glochidia, will latch on to the gills of the sturgeon and spend a few months there growing into juveniles.

André Martel, Ph.D.


Canadian Museum of Nature

The Hickorynut is one of the freshwater mussels found here in Canada.

It’s found in seven rivers across the country, the Ottawa River being one of them.

And we think it’s here that we may have the largest population of this species, which is endangered in Canada, even though it’s abundant here.

We’re talking about 140 kilometres, 142 kilometres of multi-habitat zones, and understanding the connection between the fish and the freshwater mussels that live together here is important for the conservation of the different species of mussels and fish that live in this river.

This work is important because we’re talking about a segment of the river, a portion of the river that is quite unique.

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Through the partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, an autonomous camera system was deployed to film the interaction between the Hickorynut mussel and the Lake Sturgeon.

Noel Alfonso M.Sc.

Research Associate

Canadian Museum of Nature

The sturgeon is basically the same kind of animal as it was millions and millions of years ago. It’s a large animal that eats small things. So not unlike whales, they were very, very common and unfortunately, they were abused and abused and over-utilized by humans, so there’s fewer of them. We’ve done a great job of messing up their environment, but this is a great spot for sturgeon.

It’s one of the stretches of the Ottawa River that is not dammed, there’s a sandy bottom, there’s beautiful current. The ecological conditions are pristine, and the sturgeon in the entire watershed off the Ottawa River do best in this stretch. They’re wonderful, wonderful large fishes, and they’ve sustained the First Nations people of this part of the world for millennia.

Dale Benoit-Zohr

Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn

First Nations

The sturgeon is very important for our nation because we do teachings on the sturgeon’s head and the pike head. We use as much of the bones to teach you about a knife, the bone structure of the knife and what it’s used for. We use the cheek bones for paddles to teach you what the paddles do. So, a lot of the species teaches us many of our knowledge.

Natural Heritage Campus

Canadian Museum of Nature

Gatineau, Quebec

Sarah Steele, Ph.D.


Canadian Museum of Nature

The larval muscles will actually attach on these filaments here. This is all soft tissue here, and they’re very, very small, a little bit smaller than the width of these filaments. So, very, very hard to see, and you have to examine them under the microscope but they can attach anywhere on these filaments.

Katriina Ilves

So, there’s four arches on each side of the fish, so eight in total. This is the fourth one we’ve looked at from this fish, and each of them has had at least one glochidium on it.

André Martel

We’re orienting a small freshwater mussel of around 250 microns. It is oriented on natrolite crystals. These are translucent crystals that allow you to orientate the specimen any way you want, and it stays in position to take photos at different angles. It’s really practical.

When we talk about freshwater mussels and fish and fish hosts, it’s because freshwater mussels need fish to complete their reproduction, to complete their life cycle.

The embryos of freshwater mussels, the glochidia, these specialized larvae, will enter the mouth and attach themselves to the gill filaments of the fish. It’s on the fish that they can go upstream, so that they can colonize the river upstream. Without fish, freshwater mussels would not only be unable to reproduce, they would also be unable to colonize our rivers.

Katriina Ilves

This work is important because it’s showing the interconnectedness of nature. And, you know, we’re a part of that, of course, but there’s really nothing more connected than the need of one species to use a different species to complete its life cycle. So, it’s a really cool connection between two very different fauna. So, we have mussels and fishes, which are evolutionarily very far apart and yet there’s this very close relationship. It’s really important to understand this connection so that we can make sure that our ecosystems are functioning the way that they should be and keeping it, you know, healthy for all of the organisms that live in the aquatic environment.

Dale Benoit-Zohr

Everything evolves and grows and depends on another species for their living, for their existence.

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The Canadian Museum of Nature’s research team consists of Dr. André Martel, Dr. Katriina Ilves, Noel Alfonso, Dr. Sarah Steele, Stéphanie Tessier, and Benjamin Aubrey. Their work on the Ottawa River is ongoing.

The museum would like to thank its collaborators, Hans-Frédéric Ellefsen from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Dr. Tim Haxton, Anita LeBaron, and Elise Millar from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Annie Paquet, and Marie-Hélène Fraser from the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs, and Jill Heinerth as Explorer in Residence from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

The museum would also like to thank Lorne Spotswood, Cheryl Spotswood, Vince Gervais, Doug Lapointe, Ron Graham, John Roelans, Dale Benoit-Zohr, Leah Hinterberger, Pierre-Luc Bastien, and Rosanne Van Schie for their support.

Funding provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Additional footage provided by Radio-Canada.

For more information on this project, visit La semaine verte on

This documentary is dedicated to the memory of Vince Gervais. His generosity, expertise and kindness were essential to the success of this project. He will be missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.

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