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Mass mortality in freshwater mussels (Actinonaias pectorosa) in the Clinch River, USA, linked to a novel densovirus

September 2, 2020

Freshwater mussels (order Unionida) are among the world’s most biodiverse but imperiled taxa. Recent unionid mass mortality events around the world threaten ecosystem services such as water filtration, nutrient cycling, habitat stabilization, and food web enhancement, but causes have remained elusive. To examine potential infectious causes of these declines, we studied mussels in Clinch River, Virginia and Tennessee, USA, where the endemic and once-predominant pheasantshell (Actinonaias pectorosa) has suffered precipitous declines since approximately 2016. Using metagenomics, we identified 17 novel viruses in Clinch River pheasantshells. However, only one virus, a novel densovirus (Parvoviridae; Densovirinae), was epidemiologically linked to morbidity. Clinch densovirus 1 was 11.2 times more likely to be found in cases (moribund mussels) than controls (apparently healthy mussels from the same or matched sites), and cases had 2.7 (log10) times higher viral loads than controls. Densoviruses cause lethal epidemic disease in invertebrates, including shrimp, cockroaches, crickets, moths, crayfish, and sea stars. Viral infection warrants consideration as a factor in unionid mass mortality events either as a direct cause, an indirect consequence of physiological compromise, or a factor interacting with other biological and ecological stressors to precipitate mortality.