This Life History and Biology Section was edited for scientific content by:
Danielle M. Crosier and Daniel P. Molloy
Division of Research & Collections
New York State Museum
Field Research Laboratory
Cambridge, New York 12816
The zebra mussel, Dreissena polymorpha, was originally described by the famous Russian scientist and explorer Pyotr Simon Pallas from a population in a tributary of the Ural River in the Caspian Sea Basin (Pallas 1771). Aided by the expansion of commercial boat traffic through newly constructed canals, this species spread west from Russia into most of Europe during the 19th century.
Zebra mussels were found for the first time in North America in 1988 in Lake St. Clair - the waterbody connecting Lake Huron with Lake Erie (Hebert et al. 1989).
Estimated to be 2-3 years old, they were likely transported there as planktonic (i.e., floating) larvae or as attached juveniles or adults in the freshwater ballast of a transatlantic ship.
The common name of these mussels is derived from the zebra-like stripes on their shells. Once adult mussels (sexually mature) are attached to a substrate by their byssal threads, they generally remain there for life; this is particularly true for larger mussels.
The name “polymorpha” is very appropriate for this organism, since the stripe pattern on the shells of these mussels can be quite variable. Sometimes mussels lack distinct stripes and appear cream-colored or completely black.
Using siphons, zebra mussels filter food particles from water.
In order for a zebra mussel population to become successfully established in a new waterbody, certain physical and biological conditions must exist, and these are discussed in detail in the Ecology section. In general, a zebra mussel population will thrive as long as there are:
Anatomy and Physiology