Lessons from the Lampsilis Mussel

Until yesterday, mussels were something I avoided looking at when passing the frozen deli section of my local supermarket. But when, late last night, I discovered the lampsilis mussel, native to the streams of Missouri, everything changed.

Mohammed Noor, a delightfully geeky professor of biology at Duke University, who is running a free online course on Evolution and Genetics, directed me to a video about the ingenious mollusc.

What I saw left me almost speechless. Not once since the demise of my goldfish Miranda, have I been so intrigued and enamoured by a freshwater creature.

For those of you too lazy to watch the video or in the kind of place where it would be inappropriate, let me tell you about the lampsilis mussel. It will sound like I’m making stuff up, but if you go back to Monday’s post, you’ll realise I’m incapable of that.

Here we go. For some reason, baby lampsilis mussels cannot become adults unless they spend some time inside a large-mouthed bass.

Don’t dwell too long on that. Just trust me that it’s true. Given that mussels cannot swim and are blind, it seems like an almost impossible feat to accomplish.

But the clever lampsilis mussel has found a way to export its young into the mouths of unsuspecting bass. It knows that if there’s one thing a big fat bass fish likes to eat, it’s a smaller, “darter” fish. Now, it’s not exactly going to find some small fish willing to paddle around it all day acting as some kind of bass bait.

So instead, they simply grow a fake one, which is fixed to their shell and exhibits all the characteristics of a small fish. It even darts around when the mussel senses the bass approaching.

When the bass reaches out to gobble up the fake fish, the mussel squirts its young into the bass’s mouth. The mussel babies grab hold of the fish’s gills and feed off its blood before finally dropping off as fully-formed mussels several weeks later. Beyond being deprived of the tasty meal it expected, the bass isn’t harmed in the process.

I’ve been so inspired by the story of the lampsilis mussel, that I’ve drawn up a list of things that humans could learn from them.

1. No matter what the extent of our defects, there is always some inner resource we can employ to solve a problem. It’s our job to find it. It could be anything from the talent to grow a fake fish to the ability to pick ourselves up again after we’ve been knocked.

2. If you can benefit from another’s weakness without harming them in the process, (and even save another fish while doing so) then by all means, go for it.

3. If evolution lends credibility to the highly ridiculous, then so should we.

4. Be patient and persevere. Sometimes you have to wait a while to get what you want. Not every bass is going to swim right into your trap, but chances are if you wait long enough, eventually one will.

5. Non-traditional early childhoods can be very successful.