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The Mysterious Mussels of Nunalleq

August 12, 2015

IMG_0221In almost every square and context I’ve excavated I found fragments of mussels, Mytilus trossulus. To the right is a fairly intact mussel shell I found today in square 68. The periostracum (the outermost organic “skin-like” layer) looks like thin fragments of black plastic. It’s very ephemeral and is easily picked up by the wind and blown away. I have seen periostracum before, but at least in southeast Alaska, it’s usually an oxidized brown color; here at Nunalleq, it is BLACK, the way it is on a live mussel shell. The periostracum seems to preserve as well or better than the shell itself which is soft, friable, and very hard to collect.  What’s most interesting about the mussels, is that there is NO rocky coast near Nunalleq!  Mussels prefer rocks as a substrate, and there isn’t a rock along the this stretch of shoreline for as far as my eyes can see….


So where are the mussels coming from?

rocky shore along the Oregon Coast

rocky shore along the Oregon coast

Elsewhere along the Pacific Coast, two types of mussels occur: Mytilus californianus and M. trossulus, with the California mussels preferring the heavy wave action of the outer coast and M. trossulus found in somewhat more protected settings, and tolerating lower salinities, for example where a freshwater stream enters an estuary. The photo below shows my son Erik along the Oregon coast amidst M. californianus and barnacles. You can see how they grow in profusion!

So where are the Nunalleq mussels orginating?

Perhaps mussels are collected after storms, when high wave energy in the Bering Sea washes them ashore attached to cobbles on which they grow…? Feder et al. (2003) report mussels being washed ashore in Barrow, attached to brown algae and pebbles on which the algae is attached.

Were Nunalleq residents taking advantage of such a source for their mussels?  Or is there a nearby rocky point on which parties go to collect mussels?  I hope someone in the community can shed light on this question when we have our workshop on August 14.

Madonna Moss

One Comment leave one →
  1. Malli permalink
    October 29, 2015 23:43

    So do you have any idea now, where those mussels came from?

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