Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie . . . all will appear on many tables this coming Thursday for Thanksgiving, a national holiday in the United States commemorating the fabled autumnal harvest meal at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. While the Thanksgiving myth mis-portrays the history of the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims, how accurately do our beloved holiday foods reflect what was eaten by people of the Northeast at the time? If there had been a fall feast at Plymouth in the early 1600s, it probably would have included staples of the region like turkey and corn along with another food that is much less common at modern-day Thanksgiving meals: mussels1,2!
Historical records indicate that mussels were abundant and easily harvested in the New England area, thus making mussels, and shellfish in general, a key portion of people’s diet2. It is unknown exactly which mussel species were eaten, but a likely candidate is the tidewater mucket, Leptodea ochracea. Tidewater muckets can be found along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Georgia, including Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod (the location of Plymouth Colony)3.
Tidewater muckets are aquatic, shelled animals. The adults are sedentary and partially burrow themselves in sediments at the bottom of rivers, streams, estuaries, ponds, and canals. They can thrive in a variety of substrates such as gravel, sand, silt, cobble, and sometimes clay4,5. Most of their lives are spent in one place, however, the larval (juvenile) stage of the tidewater mucket involves a stretch of secondhand travel. During the spring, adult tidewater muckets produce glochidia, or parasitic larvae, that are released into the water and attach to the fins or gills of a host fish. Once attached, the glochidia become passengers as the host fish swims away, carrying the juvenile mussels to new locations where they can settle. Not all fish species can serve as hosts to glochidium, and the only confirmed host for the tidewater mucket is the white perch (Morone americana)6.
The tidewater mucket is classified as a species of “special concern” in Massachusetts, and it is considered “at risk” in Nova Scotia and “threatened” in Connecticut, Maine, and New Jersey3. Due to their sedentary lifestyle, adult tidewater muckets are vulnerable to environmental degradation, sedimentation, nutrient enrichment, pollution, invasive species, and consequences of urbanization3. Surveys of tidewater mucket populations throughout their range allow for monitoring and habitat assessment and aid communities in developing conservation and restoration programs targeted to those areas3.
Mussels, including tidewater muckets, are some of the most important internal filter feeders. This means that by using internal structures, they filter out particles like phytoplankton (tiny aquatic plants) and bacteria directly from the water and consume them7. Through this feeding mechanism, mussels improve the water quality and clarity of their aquatic environment7. Additionally, mussels are important members of marine and freshwater food webs because they consume primary producers like phytoplankton. Therefore, it is important to protect these animals in order to preserve the water quality and health of aquatic ecosystems.
The next time mussels appear on your table, take a moment to appreciate all they do for our aquatic ecosystems and diets—both now and nearly 400 years ago!
Nicole W. Korzeniecki is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She’s interested in the dynamics of social insect colonies, specifically in host-microbiome interactions, collective decision-making, and the self-organization of complex behaviors.
- Gambino, Megan. “What was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving?” Smithsonianmag.com, 21 Nov. 2011, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-was-on-the-menu-at-the-first-thanksgiving-511554/.
- “First Thanksgiving Meal.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 18 Nov. 2011, http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/first-thanksgiving-meal.
- “Tidewater Mucket Leptodea ochracea.” Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2016/08/no/leptodea-ochracea.pdf
- “Leptodea ochracea Tidewater Mucket.” NatureServe Explorer, https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.114703/Leptodea_ochracea
- Ortmann, A. E. (1919). A Monograph on the Naides of Pennsylvania Part 3, Systematic Account of the Genera and Species. Mem. Carnegie Mus. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- Wick, P. C. & Huryn, A. D. (2003). PL 31. Fish hosts and population demographics of Lampsilis cariosa and Leptodea ochracea (Unionidae) in Maine. Meeting Program and Abstracts of the 3rd Biennial Symposium of the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society, March 16-19, 2003, Durham, North Carolina. 56 pp.
- “Filter Feeders.” Newport Bay Conservancy, https://newportbay.org/wildlife/marine-life/filter-feeders/.
For more information on the fallacies of Thanksgiving related to colonialism and Native American people, check out this episode from All My Relations Podcast.
Edited by Jessica Schaefer