• biodiversity;
  • biological invasion;
  • exotic species;
  • extinction rates;
  • Unionidae

1.  Freshwater mussels (Order Unionoida) are the most imperiled faunal group in North America; 60% of described species are considered endangered or threatened, and 12% are presumed extinct. Widespread habitat degradation (including pollution, siltation, river channelization and impoundment) has been the primary cause of extinction during this century, but a new stress was added in the last decade by the introduction of the Eurasian zebra mussel, Dreissena polymorpha, a biofouling organism that smothers the shells of other molluscs and competes with other suspension feeders for food. Since the early 1990s, it has been spreading throughout the Mississippi River basin, which contains the largest number of endemic freshwater mussels in the world. In this report, we use an exponential decay model based on data from other invaded habitats to predict the long-term impact of D. polymorpha on mussel species richness in the basin.

2.  In North American lakes and rivers that support high densities (>3000 m−2) of D. polymorpha, native mussel populations are extirpated within 4–8 years following invasion. Significant local declines in native mussel populations in the Illinois and Ohio rivers, concomitant with the establishment of dense populations of D. polymorpha, suggest that induced mortality is occurring in the Mississippi River basin.

3.  A comparison of species loss at various sites before and after invasion indicates that D. polymorpha has accelerated regional extinction rates of North American freshwater mussels by 10-fold. If this trend persists, the regional extinction rate for Mississippi basin species will be 12% per decade. Over 60 endemic mussels in the Mississippi River basin are threatened with global extinction by the combined impacts of the D. polymorpha invasion and environmental degradation.