Zebra mussels are spreading in Central Texas — can dogs help stop them?

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Humans may soon have yet another reason to love dogs.

Researchers at Texas Tech University are currently studying how well dogs can detect invasive mussels in bodies of water: looking into both the dogs’ natural capabilities and bulk environmental samples like soil and water.

Researcher Nathan Hall predicts both methods will work. However, he believes dog abilities to provide real-time results will prove to be more beneficial.

“The dog [not only has] a remarkable nose, it’s a remarkably smart animal,” he said. “On top of that is it’s a real-time detection tool. If you have a boat in front of you, if you’re going out to the lake for a day, you don’t want someone to swab your boat, send it to the lab, and let you know three days later whether you can put your boat into the boat ramp.”

These invasive, rapidly-producing, finger-sized mollusks arrived in North America from Eurasia in the 1980s, experts say. After invading the Great Lakes region, they began appearing all across the U.S. The species was discovered in Texas in Lake Texoma in 2009, and has been spreading ever since. Back in 2019, Zebra mussels were the culprit behind a foul odor in Austin city water after they were discovered in a pipeline at the Ulrich Water Treatment Plant.

Earlier this month, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced it discovered an infestation in Burnet County’s Inks Lake, bringing the total number of Texas lakes impacted to 32, with 27 considered infested.

“They can cause a wide variety of damages, to the native life that are within the lakes, as well as [to] any resources that are being utilized on the lake,” Hall said.

The researchers will use six trained dogs that have shown success in detecting mussels. In addition to sniffing for mussels on boats, the dogs will also smell the waterways themselves.

“We really need active screening and active controls, and they very well can work,” Hall said.

The research project has received a $233,641 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service to continue its work.

Invasion of the Zebra mussels!

While dogs could be a key to slashing Zebra mussel populations, the mussels also have a way of striking back at the canines.

John Higley, CEO of EQO, an Austin-based biotech company that helps manage invasive species, says that because Zebra mussels feed on “good” algae in bodies of water, it gives toxic algae — which can be deadly to dogs — free reign. This algae, also known as cyanobacteria, is blue-green in color and is known to have caused the deaths of at least five dogs after swimming in bodies of water in Austin in 2019.

Nationally, Zebra mussels are posing a problem, too.

Back in March, they were discovered in aquarium products imported from the Ukraine. These “moss balls” are used in tanks for Beta fish and are sometimes sold under the names, “Beta Buddy Marimo Balls,” and similar names. At the time, TPWD urged retailers to pull the items from shelves and for customers to dispose of them by drying/freezing them or putting them in plastic bags before tossing in the trash.

The products were sold at both Petco and PetSmart, but were shortly removed.

In addition to aquatic pets and habitats, Zebra mussels can pose dangers to humans. Swimmers are particularly at risk of having their feet sliced by the razor blade-sharp mussels. Protective footwear should always be worn when taking dips in bodies of water known to have Zebra mussels.

If you’ve seen zebra mussels in Texas waterways, you can send photos and location information to aquaticinvasives@tpwd.texas.gov or by calling (512) 389-4848.

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