Meet Hugo Ruellan, our newest aquatic ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS)! Hugo is set to study his specialty, freshwater mollusks, as well as fishes and aquatic amphibians and reptiles.
“Since I’ve been researching freshwater mussels for so long, I’m really excited to learn about surveying for fishes and aquatic amphibians and reptiles in Illinois,” he said.
Hugo’s interest in all wildlife under the water started young. As a child, he loved watching fishes and turtles swimming while snorkeling with his brother in nearby lakes.
“I was also obsessed with a nature documentary called Blue Planet, which I watched probably every day,” said Hugo. “I wanted to go to the sea to find these alien creatures that had never been seen before.”
Beyond discovery, Hugo wanted to understand what made each of these animals special and what we needed to do to conserve them, just as his childhood hero Steve Irwin did.
With this goal in mind, Hugo earned his bachelor’s degree in natural resources at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. It was there that Hugo found his footing in freshwater mussel research.
“I got into mussels by accident. I was in my junior year of undergrad and wanted to spend a summer doing research since I hadn’t before,” Hugo explained. “My friend Rachel said that her research advisor was hiring field techs to help survey mussels in the Kalamazoo River watershed. After spending a summer going river to river looking for mussels, I was hooked.”
Hugo went on to pursue a master’s degree in natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he continued to study those livers of our rivers—freshwater mussels.
Working closely with INHS scientists, Hugo used modeling to predict the amount and location of suitable habitat in the Middle Fork and Salt Fork Vermilion rivers for two federally endangered freshwater mussel species—the Northern Riffleshell and Clubshell—as his graduate research. This information will be used to guide future translocation efforts for these imperiled species.
Through his work, Hugo has found that people hold many misconceptions about mussels.
“Being from the Midwest, people are very aware of zebra mussels, but usually don’t know that we have a huge diversity of native mussels,” Hugo said. “People always assume that I study invasive species.”
The motivation behind mussel conservation calls is even murkier.
“Trying to explain to people why we need to conserve mussels has always been tricky, since mussels are basically living rocks and don’t instill the same sense of empathy in people as gorillas, manatees or rhinoceros,” Hugo said. “While they’re not as cute, mussels do provide important ecological functions and are indicators of stream health.”
“Everyone asks if we eat the mussels or if we’re conserving them to eat them, which we don’t,” he continued.
Despite these challenges, Hugo is happy to be back at INHS as an aquatic ecologist working on these often unappreciated organisms.
To others hoping to pursue a similar career in science, Hugo says, “Don’t give up! Science takes a lot of time to complete and the first time you conduct research it will be super hard. But it is worth it. Do your best to stick with it!”