Abstract The present study was designed to assess the environmental effects of metals in a field setting. We explored exposure→bioaccumulation→effects relationships in freshwater molluscs exposed to metals in their natural habitat. Indigenous floater mussels ( Pyganodon grandis) were collected from ten limnologically similar lakes located along a Cd, Cu and Zn gradient. Ambient free-metal ion concentrations were estimated as a measure of metal exposure. Metallothionein (MT) was measured in mussel gills and metal partitioning among the various cytosolic protein pools was determined by size exclusion chromatography. Various biomarkers were also measured, including malondialdehyde (MDA) concentrations in the gills and in the digestive gland, glutathione-peroxidase and glutathione-reductase activities in the digestive gland, and lipid concentrations in the gonad. Cadmium and MT concentrations in the gill cytosol increased along the contamination gradient, but Cu and Zn levels were independent of the ambient free-metal ion concentrations. The distribution of Cd among the various cytosolic complexes remained quite constant: 80% in the MT-like pool, 7% in the low molecular weight pool (LMW<1.8 kDa) and 13% in the high molecular weight pool (HMW>18 kDa). For these chronically exposed molluscs there was thus no threshold exposure concentration above which spillover of Cd occurred from the MT pool to other cytosolic ligands. However, the presence of Cd in the LMW and HMW fractions suggests that metal detoxification was imperfect, i.e. that P. grandis was subject to some Cd-related stress at low chronic exposure concentrations. Consistent with this suggestion, MDA concentrations, an indicator of oxidative stress, increased with gill cytosolic Cd. In the digestive gland, MDA concentrations were unrelated to any of the measured metals, but glutathione-peroxidase and glutathione-reductase activities increased with gill cytosolic copper. We speculate that cytosolic Cu catalyses the production of reactive oxygen species, to which the organism reacts by increasing activities of the two enzymes, thus preventing the accumulation of reactive oxygen species. Lipid concentrations in the gonad did not decrease with any of the measured toxicological parameters, suggesting that energy reserves for reproduction were not compromised in the metal-contaminated mussels. The results of the present study, where chronically exposed bivalves were collected from their natural habitat along a metal contamination gradient, contrast markedly with what would have been predicted on the basis of experimental metal exposures, and clearly demonstrate the need to study metal exposure→bioaccumulation→effects relationships in natural populations.