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All about Leeches

Fredric R. Govedich and Bonnie A. Bain


Northern Arizona University, Department of Biological Sciences, Flagstaff, A !"##$ USA fredric.govedich%inverte&rate.'s, &onnie.&ain%inverte&rate.'s http())'''.inverte&rate.'s *arch $+, ,##-

*ost people thin. of leeches as nasty &loods/c.ing creat/res 'ith little or no 'orth, and no interesting &ehaviors, let alone any parenting s.ills, &/t this pop/lar perception of them is 'ay off the mar.. A common misconception a&o/t leeches is that there is only one .ind of leech. 0n fact, there are &et'een 1## and $### species of leeches 'orld'ide and they can &e fo/nd in a variety of different ha&itats incl/ding marine, est/arine, moist terrestrial 2partic/larly in A/stralia and So/theast Asia3 and fresh'ater ecosystems. 4ithin these ha&itats, leeches can &e fo/nd attached to vario/s s/&strates incl/ding fish and other marine creat/res 2marine and est/arine3, /nderneath roc.s or clinging to vegetation 2moist terrestrial3, or living on s/&merged 'ood, stones, and a5/atic vegetation in ponds, streams, and rivers. 6ven if yo/ .no' 'here to loo. for them, leeches can still &e diffic/lt to find since many species are often 'ell camo/flaged, &lending in perfectly 'ith their environment and ma.ing them e7tremely hard to locate. Despite their close association 'ith medieval medicine, leeches today are /sed for a variety of medical p/rposes incl/ding providing /sef/l treatments for arthritis, &lood8clotting disorders, varicose veins and other circ/latory disorders and are also /sed in modern plastic and reconstr/ctive s/rgery. 0n addition to their medical /ses, leeches are 5/ite fascinating in their o'n right and have some very interesting &ehaviors. For instance, it t/rns o/t that many leech species are very good parents, caring for their yo/ng in a manner that resem&les the care sho'n &y &irds or even mammals. 9hey can care for their yo/ng in a variety of 'ays incl/ding &/ilding nests for them, carrying &roods of eggs or yo/ng attached to their ventral s/rface, or even, in several species, carrying the eggs and yo/ng in an internal po/ch 2li.e a mars/pial3. 0n 5/ite a fe' cases, the parent leech also feeds its yo/ng, either directly providing n/trients across the &ody 'all or, more fre5/ently, &y capt/ring and .illing prey for the yo/ngsters to feed on /ntil they are &ig eno/gh to provide for themselves. What do leeches eat? :ontrary to pop/lar &elief, not all of them are &loods/c.ers. 0n fact, many of them are sit8and8'ait predators and feed on a variety of different inverte&rates s/ch as insects 2gnats, mos5/ito larvae, 'ater &/gs3, oligochaetes 2&oth a5/atic &lac.'orms and their terrestrial co/sins, the earth'orms3, amphipods 2side s'immers3, and lots of different .inds of moll/scs incl/ding pond snails and fresh'ater clams. 9hese predacio/s leeches are either eng/lfers 2ie. they s'allo' their prey 'hole3 or they are e5/ipped 'ith a protr/si&le pro&oscis 'hich resem&les a hypodermic needle. 4hen not in /se, the pro&oscis is retracted into the mo/th, &/t 'hen a leech has located a prey item, the pro&oscis pops o/t of the mo/th and the leech /ses it to spear its prey and then, once the prey is s/&d/ed, the leech /ses the hollo' pro&oscis li.e a soda

stra' and s/c.s /p the ;/ices of its prey. Some leeches 'ith a pro&oscis and others that have ;a's are temporary ectoparasites on a variety of different verte&rates incl/ding fish, t/rtles, crocodiles, and h/mans. 9hese are the &loods/c.ers and are the ones that most people thin. of 'hen the 'ord <leech= is mentioned. 9hey don>t need m/ch introd/ction since they are infamo/s in their o'n right, having had starring roles in movies s/ch as the ?olly'ood classic, African Queen , and, more recently, Stand by Me and even the BB: television comedy Black Adder . *any &loods/c.ers /se ;a's instead of a pro&oscis 'ith 'hich to &ite their hosts and depending on 'hich family the &loods/c.er &elongs to, they can have either t'o or three ;a's. 9he ;a's loo. li.e tiny half circ/lar sa' &lades and are e7tremely sharp and have either small teeth or a c/tting edge. 9he t'o8;a'ed .inds leave a @8shaped &ite and the three8;a'ed ones leave a A8 shaped &ite. Bloods/c.ing or sang/ivoro/s 2&lood8feeding3 leeches 'ill readily feed on fish, reptiles 2t/rtles and crocodiles3, amphi&ians 2frogs3, 'aterfo'l 2d/c.s, etc.3, and mammals incl/ding h/mans, &/t 'hen larger prey are scarce, they have &een .no'n to feed on earth'orms or other availa&le inverte&rates to tide them over /ntil their ne7t &lood meal. Besides feeding on everything from snails to h/mans, leeches themselves are often preyed /pon &y other organisms and can form an important part of the diet of some other a5/atic predators incl/ding other inverte&rates s/ch as dragonfly or damselfly nymphs and verte&rate predators incl/ding fish, amphi&ians, and 'aterfo'l. What are leeches? Beeches are mem&ers of the Chyl/m Annelida 'hich also incl/des the polychaetes 2marine sand'orms and &ristle'orms3 and Dligochaetes 2a5/atic &lac.'orms, terrestrial earth'orms3. Str/ct/rally, leeches most closely resem&le their nearest relatives, the oligochaetes. Bi.e them, the leech &ody is composed of a series of segments, &/t /nli.e the oligochaetes 'hich can have a varia&le n/m&er of segments, leeches al'ays have t'o pre8oral and E, post8 oral segments. 0n addition, oligochaete &ody segments are never s/&divided and are represented &y a single ring 2ann/l/s3, &/t leech &ody segments are al'ays s/&divided into t'o or more rings 2ann/li3 per &ody segment. Besides differences in &ody segmentation, leeches also lac. the &ristles 2chaetae or setae3 'hich other annelids /se for locomotion, replacing them instead 'ith a s/c.er at each end of the &ody. How do leeches move? Beeches can move &y alternately attaching and detaching these s/c.ers, cra'ling a&o/t in a looping inch8'orm li.e motion. Besides cra'ling a&o/t &y means of their s/c.ers, many a5/atic species can flatten their &odies and s'im, resem&ling eels as they move thro/gh the 'ater. How do leeches find their food? Beeches can detect their prey 'ith several different sets of sensory str/ct/res, some of 'hich can &e 5/ite sophisticated. 9hey do have simple eyes, located at the anterior end, &/t these are incapa&le of forming an image and are only /sed to detect changes in light intensity and possi&ly some movement. 9hey

rely instead either on smell)taste 2chemoreception3 or on detecting vi&rations 2mechanoreception3 /sing special str/ct/res called sensilla. Bloods/c.ing leeches, for instance, find and trac. their prey /sing &oth chemo8 and mechanoreception. 9hey first /se mechanoreception to detect potential prey 'hich might &e either thrashing a&o/t in the 'ater or alternatively 'al.ing thro/gh the &/sh. After follo'ing the vi&rations to the scene, they can then home in on their prey &y follo'ing the scent or in terrestrial leeches a car&on dio7ide gradient emanating from the animal. Alternatively, a predaceo/s eng/lfing leech, Motobdella montezuma , has &een fo/nd to trac. its prey, the amphipod, Hyalella montezuma , &y passive sonar. 0t listens for the vi&rations made &y Hyalella 'hen it s'ims and Motobdella's hearing is sophisticated eno/gh that it can discriminate among the different size classes of the amphipod, s.ipping over any that are too &ig or too small and homing in on those that are ;/st the right size for it to eat.

Fig/re $( From left to right in top ro'( A/stralian snail leech 2Alboglossiphonia australiensis 3 eating a snail. A/stralian <tiger= or horse leech 2Richardsonianus australis 3 feeding on horse &lood. A/stralian terrestrial leech 2Philaemon 3 sho'ing its eyes. Sensilla 2motion sensor3 from a &loods/c.er. From left to right &ottom ro' 2Helobdella papillornata 3( 6ggs attached to the stomach of their parent. Ao/ng after they hatch and remain attached to the stomach of their parent. Several yo/ng snail leeches feeding on a snail together.

9his man/script is prod/ced as part of http())'''.inverte&rate.'s Ao/ are free to /se this information as long as yo/ cite its so/rce. 9e7t and Chotos are :opyright F ,##+ &y Fredric R. Govedich and Bonnie A. Bain.