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Tritogonia verrucosa

What do they look like?

Buckhorns have thick shells that are thin and long. They are green or light brown when buckhorns are younger, and turn darker brown or black over time. The shells are covered in bumps that are different sizes and shapes. The shells of males are short. The shells of females are shrunken and both the top and bottom shells are curved. The most pointy part of the shell, which is called a beak, has ridges going down the sides. (Cummins and Mayer, 1997)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes shaped differently
  • Range mass
    1120 (high) g
    39.47 (high) oz
  • Range length
    20 (high) cm
    7.87 (high) in

Where do they live?

Buckhorn mussles, which are also called pistol grips, live in the central and eastern United States. They are found in Texas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Oklahoma, Delaware, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, West Virginia, and Virginia. (Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2012)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Buckhorn live in medium-sized or large rivers where they burrow in sand and gravel on the bottom. They also live in rivers with mud or silt bottoms. (Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2012)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • benthic
  • rivers and streams
  • Range depth
    1 to 20 m
    3.28 to 65.62 ft
  • Average depth
    8 m
    26.25 ft

How do they grow?

Buckhorns reproduce in the spring. Male buckhorns release reproductive cells into the water and females take them in to fertilize their eggs. The eggs grow inside the gills of the mothers from May to August. After the eggs develop into larvae, they are released into the water. They attach to the gills of fish by holding on with their valves. While attached to the fish, they grow into to juvenile buckhorns. Later, the juveniles let go of the fish and settle on the bottom of the river or stream. (Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2012)

How do they reproduce?

Male buckhorns release reproductive cells into the water in spring. Females take in the water with reproductive cells and fertilize their eggs. Buckhorn larvae are released in summer. (Cummins and Mayer, 1997)

Females keep the eggs in their gills until they develop into larvae. Females release the larvae, and they attach onto fish. The larvae are around 0.122 mm long and 0.109 mm wide. While the larvae are attached to fish, they grow into juveniles. Then, they drop off and settle to the bottom of the stream or river. (Jirka and Neves, 1992; Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2012)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Buckhorn mussels breed once a year.
  • Breeding season
    Buckhorn mussels breed in the spring.
  • Range gestation period
    115 to 136 days
  • Average gestation period
    122 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    6 years

The amount of parental investment in buckhorns is low. Male buckhorns produce reproductive cells. Females shelter and provide food to the eggs and larvae in their gills until they are released to attach to fish.

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

How long do they live?

The best way to tell the age of a mussel is by counting its growth rings, like a tree. Scientists haven't studied buckhorns in particular, but mussels can live as long as 70 years or more. (Comfort, 1957; Kidwell and Rothfus, 2010; Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2012)

How do they behave?

Adult buckhorn mussels don't move very far. They are able to move around the bottom using their foot. (Amyot and Downing, 1997; Jirka and Neves, 1992; Kidwell and Rothfus, 2010; Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2012)

Home Range

Scientists don't know the exact size of the area where buckhorns live. Most mussels don't move very much after they grow into adults.

How do they communicate with each other?

River mussels keep their balance using organs called statocysts and statoliths, which help them feel gravity. They have touch cells on the fleshy part of their body. They might be able to feel vibrations as well. Their larvae snap shut if they are touched, and this snapping motion is also used to attach to a fish host. Some female mussels release their larvae when a shadow crosses them that looks like a host fish. They might also understand chemical signals to reproduce. (Winhold, 2004)

What do they eat?

Mussels are filter feeders, meaning they strain bits of food out of the water. They pull water through pores and into their gills using cilia, which look like tiny hairs. The bits of food get trapped in their gills and then mucous moves the food to their digestive system. They get nutrients and oxygen this way from rotting bits of dead plants and animals. (Missouri Dept. of Conservation, 2011)

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Buckhorn mussels have a hard shell which protects them from predators. Their dark colors help camouflage them in their environment. They probably have similar predators to other related mussels. River mussels are eaten by ducks and geese, raccoons, river otters, and muskrats. (Cummins and Mayer, 1997)

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • cryptic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Where there are mussel beds, there are more other species and also more large animals. Buckhorn mussel larvae live attached to flathead catfish, brown bullheads and yellow bullheads. They are damaged by zebra mussels, which attach to their shells and cause them to starve to death. Buckhorn mussels can also become infected with a kind of ciliate parasite. (Antipa and Small, 1971; Borthagaray and Carranza, 2006)

Species (or larger taxonomic groups) used as hosts by this species
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • ciliate protozoans (Conchophthirus curtis)

Do they cause problems?

There are no known negative impacts of buckhorn mussels on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Buckhorn mussels were once used to make pearl buttons, and now their shells are used to grow oysters for pearls. Mussels are also useful for for testing the quality of the water where they live because they live long lives and don't move around very much. (Missouri Dept. of Conservation, 2011; Smith and Jepsen, 2008)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • research and education

Are they endangered?

Buckhorn mussels are threatened in Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin. They have gone extinct in North Carolina. (Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2012; Wang and Bush, 2008)


Jacob Pederson (author), Minnesota State University, Mankato, Robert Sorensen (editor), Minnesota State University, Mankato, Renee Mulcrone (editor), Special Projects, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.


Amyot, J., J. Downing. 1997. Seasonal variation in vertical and horizontal movement of the freshwater bivalve Elliptio complanata. Freshwater Biology, 37: 345-354. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Antipa, G., E. Small. 1971. The occurrence of Thigmotrichous ciliated protozoa inhabiting the mantle cavity of unionid molluscs of Illinois. American Microscopical Society, 90 (4): 463-472. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Borthagaray, A., A. Carranza. 2006. Mussels as ecosystem engineers: Their contribution to species richness in a rocky littoral community. Acta Oecologica, 31 (3): 243-250.

Comfort, A. 1957. The duration of life in molluscs. Journal of Molluscan Studies, 32 (6): 219-241.

Cummins, K., C. Mayer. 1997. "Tritogonia verrucosa (Rafinesque, 1820)" (On-line). Field guide to freshwater mussels of the midwest, Illinois Natural History Survey Manual 5. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Jirka, K., R. Neves. 1992. Reproductive biology of four species of freshwater mussels (Mollusca:Unionidae) in the New River, Virginia and West Virginia. Journal of Freshwater Ecology, 7 (1): 35-45. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Kidwell, S., T. Rothfus. 2010. The living, the dead, and the expected dead: variation in life span. Paleobiology, 36(4): 615–640. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, 2012. "Tritogonia verrucosa (Rafinesque, 1820)" (On-line). Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Rare Species Guide. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Missouri Dept. of Conservation, 2011. "Pistolgrip (also Buckhorn)" (On-line). Field Guide, Aquatic Invertebrates. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Smith, A., S. Jepsen. 2008. Overlooked gems: The benefits of freshwater mussels. WINGS, Fall: 14-19. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Wang, S., A. Bush. 2008. Adjusting global extinction rates to account for taxonomic susceptibility. Paleobiology, 34(4): 435-455. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Winhold, L. 2004. "Unionidae" (On-line). Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 27, 2012 at

Wisconsin Dept. of Nat. Resources, 2009. "Endangered Resources Program Species Information" (On-line). Buckhorn (Tritogonia verrucosa). Accessed February 27, 2012 at

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Pederson, J. 2012. "Tritogonia verrucosa" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 29, 2023 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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