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Marine mussels behind some Goose barnacles
Marine mussels behind some Goose barnacles
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Mollusca
Class: Bivalvia

Pteriomorpha (marine mussels)
Palaeoheterodonta (freshwater mussels)
Heterodonta (zebra mussels)

The common name mussel is used for members of several different families of clams or bivalve molluscs, from both saltwater and freshwater habitats.

"Mussel" is historically applied to bivalves of the marine family Mytilidae, most of which live exposed in the intertidal zone, attached by means of strong byssal threads to a firm substrate. Bivalves referred to as "clams" generally live buried in a soft material, and communicate to the surface by means of a tube or siphon. In most marine mussels the shell is longer than it is wide, being wedge-shaped or asymmetrical. The external color of the shell is dark blue, blackish, or brown, while the interior is silvery and somewhat nacreous. "Mussel" is also used for larger freshwater bivalves, more exactly called "clams", given their mode of existence. Marine mussel species live in intertidal and subtidal areas along coastlines worldwide. A few species have colonized hydrothermal vents associated with deep ocean ridges. Freshwater mussel species inhabit lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, canals, and similar habitats.

Freshwater mussels (several allied families, the largest being the Unionidae) and saltwater mussels (family Mytilidae) are not closely related. They are taxonomically grouped in different subclasses, despite some superficial similarities in appearance.

The freshwater Zebra mussels and their relatives in the family Dreissenidae are not related to either of the previously mentioned groups, even though they resemble many Mytilus species in shape, and live attached to rocks and other hard surfaces in a similar manner. They are classified with the Heterodonta, the taxonomic group which includes most of the bivalves commonly referred to as "clams".

File:Unio pictorum.jpg
A freshwater mussel from the Netherlands, Unio pictorum (from the family Unionidae), commonly known as the "Painter's mussel". Individual shell valves of this species were used by painters as a small dish in which to mix pigments.


Marine blue mussel, Mytilus edulis, showing some of the inner anatomy. The white posterior adductor muscle is visible in the upper image, and has been cut in the lower image to allow the valves to open fully

The mussel's external shell is composed of two hinged halves or "valves". The valves are joined together on the outside by a ligament, and are closed when necessary by strong internal muscles. Mussel shells carry out a variety of functions, including support for soft tissues, protection from predators and protection against desiccation.

The shell is made of three layers. In the pearly mussels there is an inner iridescent layer of nacre (mother-of-pearl) composed of calcium carbonate, which is continuously secreted by the mantle; the prismatic layer, a middle layer of chalky white crystals of calcium carbonate in a protein matrix; and the periostracum, an outer pigmented layer resembling a skin. The periostracum is composed of a protein called conchin, and its function is to protect the prismatic layer from abrasion and dissolution by acids (especially important in freshwater forms where the decay of leaf materials produces acids).

Like most bivalves, mussels have a large organ called a foot. In freshwater mussels, the foot is large, muscular, and generally hatchet-shaped. It is used to pull the animal through the substrate (typically sand, gravel, or silt) in which it lies partially buried. It does this by repeatedly advancing the foot through the substrate, expanding the end so it serves as an anchor, and then pulling the rest of the animal with its shell forward. It also serves as a fleshy anchor when the animal is stationary.

In marine mussels, the foot is smaller, tongue-like in shape, with a groove on the ventral surface which is continuous with the byssus pit. In this pit, a viscous secretion is exuded, entering the groove and hardening gradually upon contact with sea water. This forms an extremely tough byssus thread that secures the mussel to its substrate. The byssus thread is also used by mussels as a defensive measure to tether predatory molluscs, such as dog whelks, that invade mussel beds, immobilising and starving them to death.

Life habits


Both marine and freshwater mussels are filter feeders; they feed on plankton and other microscopic sea creatures which are free-floating in seawater. A mussel draws water in through its incurrent siphon. The water is then brought into the branchial chamber by the actions of the cilia located on the gills for cilliary-mucus feeding. The wastewater exits through the excurrent siphon. The labial palps finally funnel the food into the mouth, where digestion begins.

Marine mussels are usually found clumping together on wave-washed rocks, each attached to the rock by its byssus. The clumping habit helps hold the mussels firm against the force of the waves. At low tide mussels in the middle of a clump will undergo less water loss because of water capture by the other mussels.


Both marine and freshwater mussels are gonochoristic, with separate male and female individuals. In marine mussels, fertilization occurs outside the body, with a larval stage that drifts for three weeks to six months, before settling on a hard surface as a young mussel. There, it is capable of moving slowly by means of attaching and detaching byssal threads to attain a better life position.

Freshwater mussels also reproduce sexually. Sperm released by the male directly into the water enters the female via the incurrent siphon. After fertilization, the eggs develop into the larval stage called glochidia. The glochidia grow in the gills of the female where they are constantly flushed with oxygen-rich water. For a time, these glochidia are parasitic on fish, attaching themselves to the fish's fins or gills. Glochidia are generally species-specific, and will only live if they find the correct fish host. Once the larval mussels attach to the fish, the fish body reacts to cover them with cells forming a cyst, where the glochidia remain for two to five weeks (depending on temperature). They grow, break free from the host, and drop to the bottom of the water. If they land in a suitable location, they will continue development and begin an independent life.

Reproduction in the Dreissenidae (zebra mussels and their relatives) is similar to marine mussels.


A starfish consuming a mussel.

Marine mussels are eaten by humans, seastars, and by numerous different species of predatory marine gastropods in the family Muricidae, such as the dog whelk, Nucella lapillus.

Freshwater mussels are eaten by otters, racoons,some ducks and geese.

Distribution and habitat

File:Faroe stamp 410 horse mussel.jpg
A stamp from the Faroe Islands showing Modiolus modiolus, the horse mussel, with various other marine invertebrates living on its shell.

Marine mussels are abundant in the low and mid intertidal zone in temperate seas globally.

Other species of marine mussel live in tropical intertidal areas, but not in the same huge numbers as in temperate zones.

Certain species of marine mussels prefer salt marshes or quiet bays, while others thrive in pounding surf, completely covering wave-washed rocks. Some species have colonized abyssal depths near hydrothermal vents.

Freshwater mussels inhabit permanent lakes, rivers, canals and streams throughout the world except polar regions. They require a constant source of cool, clean water, with bottoms that are not muddy. They prefer water with a substantial mineral content, using calcium carbonate to build their shells.


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File:Bouchots DSC04101.jpg
Bouchots are vertical pilings planted at sea for growing mussels. Here, bouchots are demonstrated at an agriculture salon.

Freshwater mussels are used as host animals for the cultivation of freshwater pearls. Some species of marine mussel, including the Blue Mussel (Mytilus edulis) and the New Zealand green-lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus), are also cultivated as a source of food.

There are a variety of techniques for growing mussels.

  • Intertidal growth technique, or bouchot technique: pilings, known in French as bouchots, are planted at sea; ropes, on which the mussels grow, are tied in a spiral on the pilings; some mesh netting prevents the mussels from falling away. This method needs an extended tidal zone.
  • Mussels are cultivated extensively in New Zealand, where the most common method is to attach mussels to ropes which are hung from a rope back-bone supported by large plastic floats. The most common species cultivated in New Zealand is the New Zealand green-lipped mussel.

Mussels as food

File:Cooked mussels DSC09244.JPG
Cooked mussels can be orange, or of a pale yellow.

There is archaeological evidence that humans have utilised mussels as a source of food for thousands of years. Nowadays marine mussels remain a popular seafood, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands, and France as they call moule marinere. where they are consumed with french fries ("mosselen met friet" or "moules frites"). In Italy, they are popular, often mixed with other sea food, or eaten with pasta. In Turkey, mussels are either covered with flour and fried on shishs ('midye tava'), or filled with rice and served cold ('midye dolma'). Mussels are usually consumed with alcohol (mostly with raki or beer). In France, the Éclade des Moules is a mussel bake popular along the beaches of the Bay of Biscay. In Cantonese cuisine, mussels are cooked in a broth of garlic and fermented black bean. In New Zealand, they are commonly served in a chili based vinaigrette. During the Second World War in the United States, mussels were commonly served in diners. This was due to the unavailability of red meat related to wartime rationing.[1] In Ireland and among the Irish Community in the West of Scotland, they are popular. Boiled and seasoned with vinegar, with the "bray" or boiling water as a supplementary hot drink.

In India mussels are popular in Kerala, Bhatkal, and Goa. They are either prepared with drumsticks, bread fruit or other vegetables , or filled with rice and coconut paste with spices and served hot.

Mussels can be smoked, boiled, steamed or fried in batter. As with all shellfish, mussels should be alive just before they are cooked because they quickly become toxic after they die. A simple criterion is that live mussels, when in the air, will tightly shut when disturbed. Open unresponsive mussels are dead and should be discarded. Closed mussel shells that are unusually heavy should be discarded as well, because usually contain only mud and can be tested by slightly moving the two shells away from each other. Mussel shells open by themselves when the mussels are cooked, revealing the cooked soft parts.

File:Mussels being unloaded in Donegal.jpg
Commercial mussel fishermen unloading the cargo of mussels in Donegal, Ireland.

In Belgium, mussels are often served with fresh herbs and flavorful vegetables in a stock of butter and white wine. Frites/Frieten and Belgian beer are popular accompaniments. Months with an "R" in their name (September to April) are said to be the "in" season for mussels.[2]

In the Netherlands, mussels are sometimes served fried in batter or breadcrumbs, particularly at take-out food outlets or other informal settings.

Although mussels are valued as food, mussel poisoning due to toxic planktonic organisms can be a danger along some coastlines. For instance, mussels should be avoided along the west coast of the United States during the warmer months. This poisoning is usually due to a bloom of dinoflagellates (red tides), which contain toxins. The dinoflagellates and their toxin are harmless to mussels, even when concentrated by the mussel's filter feeding, but if the mussels are consumed by humans, the concentrated toxins cause serious illness, such as paralytic shellfish poisoning. Usually the US government monitors the levels of toxins throughout the year at fishing sites. See Red Tide.

Freshwater mussels nowadays are generally considered to be unpalatable, though the native peoples in North America utilized them extensively.

Nutrition Highlights Mussel: Calories: 146 Protein: 20g Carbohydrate: 6.3g Total Fat: 3.8g Fiber: 0.0g

  • Excellent source of: Selenium (76mcg), and Vitamin B12 (20mcg)
  • Good source of: Zinc (2.3mg), and Folate (64mcg)
  • Foods that are an “excellent source” of a particular nutrient provide 20% or more of the Recommended Daily Value. Foods that are a “good source” of a particular nutrient provide between 10 and 20% of the Recommended Daily Value.

Mussels are not a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Reference



See also


  1. Alton Brown, Good Eats
  2. 'Jeannie Bastian'. The Mussels from Brussels. Accessed November 15 2006.
  3. Shellfish view of omega-3 and sustainable fisheries Nature 444, 1002 (21 December 2006) | doi:10.1038/4441002d; Published online 21 December 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-25.

External links

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