Land & Environment

UWRL Grad Student Research Informs First-in-Texas Freshwater Mussel Conservation

By Brittanie Carter |

UWRL Grad Student Megan DiNicola and a biologist from the San Antonio River Authority monitor adult freshwater mussels that were a part of a pilot study used to inform research in the San Antonio River.

In 2022, Utah Water Research Laboratory graduate student Megan DiNicola and USU Professor Belize Lane began mapping 3D-printed replicas of freshwater mussels to study their preferred physical habitat conditions. This research will soon be applied over 1,000 miles away, where the San Antonio River Authority and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plan to reintroduce freshwater mussels into the San Antonio River in early July, marking a first-of-its-kind conservation effort in the state of Texas.

After a large river restoration project aimed at improving the San Antonio River Mission Reach's habitat and water quality in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was completed in 2013, habitat conditions have improved to a level where local river managers are now ready to reintroduce freshwater mussels to further enhance the ecosystem and increase the range of native mussels into waters where they were previously removed.

Native freshwater mussels, known for their ability to clean water by filtering pollutants and bacteria through their gills, are praised for their positive impact on water quality. They also help stabilize river sediment, creating better habitats for other organisms. Despite their benefits, mussels are one of the most endangered groups of organisms in the United States and around the globe. The San Antonio River Authority hopes the reintroduction will improve water quality and river habitats for future generations.

Collaborators at Texas State University San Marcos created 3D-printed mussels based on scans of empty mussel shells, embedding each with a tracking tag. Field technicians placed these replicas in the river, and after large storm events, the team tracked their locations using radio scanners.

DiNicola used results from each antenna mapping to analyze mussel locations and determine the best environments for live freshwater mussels. This information will guide river managers during their placement of live mussels in the weeks to come and can be used to guide further reintroduction efforts in other areas of the San Antonio River Basin and around the country.

“Mussels are really hard to grow in hatchery-type settings and are susceptible to mass die-off events. Any way that we can figure out best practices for reintroducing mussels without using live specimens is a best practice that can save a lot of time, effort and money,” DiNicola said.

This work is one piece of a large collaborative project funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Aquatic Nuisance Species Research Program’s focus on Next Generation Ecological Modeling to build advanced ecological models that can help address large scale environmental issues.

DiNicola and Lane will continue their work on the San Antonio River, with their next project combining mussel habitat mapping with fish movement. Freshwater mussel reproduction is unique, as larvae spread by attaching to fish gills.

The team, in partnership with Texas A&M University, will study how fish patterns influence mussel distribution, helping determine the frequency and locations for reintroducing new mussels. This research is expected to conclude within the next year or early the following year.

DiNicola and Lane are also enthusiastic about the potential of 3D mussel mapping to benefit other river basins across Texas and the U.S., including Utah.

“As we restore rivers and improve waterways to sustain populations, understanding their preferred habitats and stable sediments is crucial,” DiNicola said. “The mapping and mussel printing techniques have broad applicability and could be very helpful for water managers.”

Read more about on this research and the San Antonio River Basin conservation efforts.

3D-printed mussels with tracking tags inside help researchers understand displacement patterns in mussels of various ages and sizes.


Brittanie Carter
Public Relations
Utah Water Research Lab


Megan DiNicola


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