The unnatural history of Minnesota’s freshwater mussels
Gary Wagenbach has a jar holding his grandmother’s collection of shiny, iridescent buttons. They’re about a century old, the size of a quarter — and striking.
“It’s a beautiful opalescent pearl,” he said. “A gorgeous button.”
From some angles, the buttons look white. But when they catch the sunlight, they burst into a rainbow of color.
These smooth little trinkets are a family heirloom, but for Wagenbach, they’re a little bit more: They were made from the pearly shells of freshwater mussels plucked from streams in the upper Midwest. And Wagenbach, now retired, spent a career studying the creatures as a mussel biologist.