A new Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center allows graduate and undergraduate students at Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources the opportunity to gain real research experience with freshwater mussels, as well as extend the college's research capabilities.

Richard Neves of Blacksburg, Va., head of freshwater mussel research at the facility and professor of fisheries, got the center up and running with grants from such organizations as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, along with other foundations. The facility sits on two remote acres of land behind engineering labs and includes a 2000-square-foot research center, quarter-acre pond, storage buildings, a water well, and a two-room lab.

The main focus of the center is propagation of some of the 70 endangered mussel species found in the United States. "Our researchers produced nearly 50,000 juvenile mussels last year and can produce up to 100,000 juveniles per year depending on the availability of the species," said Neves.

While propagation is one of the main objectives of the center, researchers also work on other projects. They are responsible for surveys at the Virginia Department of Transportation bridge sites, an annual project that requires 20 some surveys each summer.

Another project involves an experiment to see whether or not researchers can use the blood chemistry of mussels to determine whether the bivalves are stressed or not. "Right now, the mussel is either alive or dead, and we can't tell how healthy it is," Neves said. "We are also studying whether the pink heelsplitter mussel is able to produce what would be the only natural purple pearls on the market."

Aside from research, propagation, and other projects at the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center, experience for students is another priority. "It can be difficult to get typical fisheries students interested in shellfish because they usually want to work with finfish," Neves noted. "But over time, because conservation biology has become important, endangered species are now on the radar screen and it's been less of a problem for me to attract students."

Having the center on Virginia Tech's campus is a strong advantage for students. "Students who graduate with either a master's degree or Ph.D. find jobs right away because many states want to have a malacologist (mussel specialist) on staff," said Neves. "People who are trained in traditional fisheries don't get that kind of training. They don't get the experience or expertise with mollusks."

The College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech consistently ranks among the top five programs of its kind in the nation. Faculty members stress both the technical and human elements of natural resources and instill in students a sense of stewardship and land-use ethics. Areas of studies include environmental resource management, fisheries and wildlife sciences, forestry, geospatial and environmental analysis, natural resource recreation, urban forestry, wood science and forest products, geography, and international development.