The oval pigtoe is more than just a quirky name.
The freshwater mussel has been endangered since 1998 and is Santa Fe River’s only federally endangered invertebrate, even though many people haven’t heard of it.
The oval pigtoe, which once thrived in the Santa Fe River basin, plays an important role in the aquatic ecosystem, improving water quality as a filter-feeder to clarify the water, said Garry Warren, principal scientist for the freshwater unit at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The mussel is also a food source for many animals in the river, he said. But since the mussel cannot flee from disturbances in its habitat, it has been affected by the stream’s poor quality.
“The oval pigtoe is a good indicator of overall stream health, and where they are, the river is probably in good condition,” said Chris Burney, project manager at Alachua Conservation Trust. “And where they’re absent, it means we’ve probably heavily impacted the area.”
Burney said one of the biggest reasons the mussels are suffering is land use changes. He said development around the river has released runoff and sedimentation, which flows into the river and hinders the current’s speed by building up in the waterways.
“They get choked to death basically,” Burney said. “The dirt just piles up on them.”
He said water usage has also taken a toll on the habitat.
The Santa Fe River basin is also home to over fifty other invertebrate species, which have been labeled as Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the FWC, Warren said.
For the past decade, government agencies and non-profit organizations have been making Santa Fe River a priority, according to one of the Trust’s newsletters. Almost half of the river is designated as conservation land.
Burney said the Trust became aware of the oval pigtoe when it joined conservation efforts for the Santa Fe River after acquiring land there earlier this year.
He said they found records of the endangered mussel next to their Santa Fe River Preserve and are now trying to expand their existing preserve.
He said the nonprofit organization wants to moderate the runoff’s impact and ensure sustainability for the freshwater ecosystems.
Burney also helped create a “Save the Oval Pigtoe” campaign with 10 UF students from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences’ Leadership Institute.
The students are spreading awareness about the endangered species with tables at local events, engaging with UF students and networking through social media.
“It definitely generates inquiry when you first hear it,” campaign member Randy Adams said. “But I think that’s almost to our advantage, [having] a sort of queer, unheard of creature that needs help.”
The UF plant sciences senior said he hopes the campaign will bring attention to the dying species and how its decline relates to Santa Fe River’s poor habitat conditions.
“Obviously a group of 10 students – even with the most charisma – in a time period of a little over a month, won’t do anything to significantly change that,” he said.
Adams said the campaign is a framework to promote conservation awareness in the long term. He said the Trust will take over in December when the students’ campaign ends.