What Lives At The Bottom Of The Tennessee River?

Written by Patrick Sather
Updated: July 21, 2023
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Key Points

  • The Tennessee River gets its name from the Cherokee town, Tanasi, a historic community in modern-day Monroe County, Tennessee.
  • The river provides power, irrigates cropland, and serves as a vital transportation route for recreational and commercial watercraft.
  • During the American Civil War, the river served as an important theater of battle.
Infographic about the Tennessee River.
The Tennessee River starts at Knoxville and is the largest tributary of the Ohio River.

Once known as the Cherokee River, the Tennessee River gets its name from the Cherokee town, Tanasi, a historic community in modern-day Monroe County, Tennessee. For hundreds of years, the Cherokee people lived, hunted, and fished along its banks. Today, the river fills an important role in the economy of the southeastern United States. The river provides power, irrigates cropland, and serves as a vital transportation route for recreational and commercial watercraft.  

Along with its economic value, the Tennessee River also ranks as one of the US’s most ecologically important rivers. Myriad birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians call the river home. With such biodiversity, it begs the question; what lives at the bottom of the Tennessee River? 

About The Tennessee River

The Tennessee River is a famous recreational setting.

©Kevin Ruck/Shutterstock.com

The Tennessee River forms at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers outside Knoxville, Tennessee. From there, it flows southwest into northern Alabama before turning and flowing northward back into western Tennessee. It runs approximately 652 miles until it flows into the Ohio River. 

The Tennessee River valley used to be home to several Native American tribes, including the Cherokee. During the American Civil War, the river served as an important theater of battle. For much of its history, the river functioned as an important navigational channel for boats moving throughout the southeastern United States. Today, many companies still use the river to transport goods such as steel.

Over the years, several dams and canals were built along the length of the Tennessee River. These canals allow for quick passage between the river and nearby reservoirs, lakes, and streams. Meanwhile, the dams control flooding and also provide hydroelectric power for cities in the region. 

Is The Tennessee River Dangerous?

Guntersville Dam Alabama

Guntersville Dam on the Tennessee River control flooding and also provides hydroelectric power for cities in the region. 

©Judy Kennamer/Shutterstock.com

In recent years, environmental advocates have raised alarms about pollution in the Tennessee River. One study found PFAS(Per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) chemical levels as high as 51,000 parts per trillion in a sample of Tennessee River water. PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” break down very slowly over time and can damage people, animals, and the environment. According to the EPA, anything PFAS chemical levels above 70 parts per trillion pose a danger to humans. This makes the Tennessee River one of the most polluted rivers in the US. 

Chemicals enter the Tennessee River via groundwater runoff from nearby landfills and other highly polluted sites. The river also witnessed one of the worst environmental disasters in US history when a dike broke near Kingson, Tennessee in 2008. As a result, billions of tons of toxic coal ash poured into several waterways that drain into the Tennessee River. Local and federal authorities continue to monitor the river regularly and search for ways to alleviate pollution in the river.

What Lives At The Bottom Of The Tennessee River?

The Tennessee River is one of the most ecologically diverse rivers in the US. It possesses such incredible biodiversity that some experts liken it to an underwater rainforest. The area around the river hosts nesting sites for birds such as bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons. You can find numerous mammals in the river, including otters, beavers, and muskrats. Approximately 230 species of fish and 100 species of mussels call the river home. In fact, the river’s quality and quantity of mussels make it one of the most important commercial mussel sites in the world. 

Lake Sturgeon

lake sturgeon in dark water

Lake sturgeon can live for an exceptionally long time.

©Galina Savina/Shutterstock.com

Also known as the rock sturgeon, the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) belongs to the sturgeon family Acipenseridae. It feeds along the bottom of the Tennessee River using its long, spade-like snout to stir up substrate and find prey. Lake sturgeon can grow up to 6.5 feet long and weigh a maximum of 240 pounds. They can live for an exceptionally long time, with some specimens reaching 150 years old. Overfishing in the late 19th and 20th centuries decimated lake sturgeon populations. Today, loss of habitat and pollution continue to threaten the lake sturgeon. Given its population decline over the last 100 years, the IUCN lists the lake sturgeon as an Endangered species. 

Blue Catfish

Blue Catfish

Blue

catfish

are opportunistic predators that can eat just about anything.

©Brandy McKnight/Shutterstock.com

The blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is a member of the catfish family Ictaluridae. With a maximum length of 65 inches and a weight of 150 pounds, it ranks as the largest catfish in North America. Blue catfish possess heavy bluish-gray bodies and a distinctive dorsal hump. They are opportunistic predators that can eat just about anything, including giant Asian carp. Many anglers prize them for their size and strength, which has led fishers to introduce them into non-native habitats. As a result, some people look at blue catfish as invasive pests. 

Snail Darter

The snail darter (Percina tanasi) shares its specific name with the Tennessee River. This small freshwater ray-finned fish belongs to the family perch, ruffe, and pikeperch family Percidae. Today, you can only find it in freshwater systems in East Tennessee. Snail darters measure 2.2 to 3.5 inches long and feature camouflage dorsal patterns that help them blend in with sandy substrate.  

In 1973, a University of Tennessee biologist discovered a snail darter near the proposed site of the Tellico Dam. At the time, the snail darter was listed as an Endangered species, and the dam would alter its habitat and block its migratory routes. A lawsuit was brought before the Supreme Court to block the construction of the dam. While the Supreme Court upheld protections for the snail darter, the US Congress passed legislation that specifically excluded the snail darter from protection. This ultimately allowed the dam project to continue and threatened the existence of the snail darter. Thankfully, several relief efforts took place to relocate the snail darter to other, unaffected parts of the Tennessee River. Today, the snail darter is listed by the IUCN as a Vulnerable species. 

Hellbender Salamander

Giant Salamander, an Eastern Hellbender, close-up

Hellbenders respire via a process known as cutaneous gas exchange.

©Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

The hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) belongs to the giant salamander family Cryptobranchidae. It is the only living member of its genus and is a close relative of the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders. Hellbenders range from 12 to 29 inches long and weigh between 3.3 and 5.5 pounds. They possess a flat body and head and slimy, reddish-brown skin. Hellbenders respire via a process known as cutaneous gas exchange. This allows them to absorb oxygen from the water through capillaries on their side frills. Hellbenders require very specific water conditions in order to live, which makes them susceptible to environmental changes. Due to pollution and habitat alteration, the IUCN lists the hellbender as a Vulnerable species. 

Oyster Mussel

The oyster mussel (Epioblasma capsaeformis) belongs to the family Unionidae. This aquatic bivalve mollusk can only be found in the Tennessee River and is listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Specimens grow up to 70 millimeters long, and the external shell looks yellowish-green with green rays. Like other freshwater mussels, oyster mussels reproduce by releasing their larvae into the water. The larvae then lodge in the gills of host fish until they mature into juvenile mussels. Habitat alteration and pollution pose the greatest risks to oyster mussels. 

Interesting Facts

  • The Tennessee River gets its name from Tanasi, a historic Cherokee village.
  • You can find over 230 fish species and 102 mussel species in the Tennessee River. 
  • The Tennessee River is the largest tributary of the Ohio River and measures approximately 652 miles long.
  • Several major battles during the American Civil War were fought around the Tennessee River. 
  • More than 13,000 recreational craft each year access the Tennessee River to reach reservoirs along the river. 
  • The Tennessee River is one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/benkrut


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