Do leeches make your flesh crawl ? Rather like snakes, many of us recoil from these blood-sucking worm-related creatures. If that is your reaction, either stop reading now or, ideally, read on and learn to overcome your distaste.
Today I have two different leeches to show you.
This is a North American Turtle Leech, Placobdella parasitica. The scientific name placobdella comes from the Ancient Greek roots plac- and -bdella, meaning plate-leech.
They spend most of their lives on freshwater turtles, without appearing to harm the turtle. Like most leeches, they are hermaphrodites, possessing both male and female reproductive organs. One leech deposits a spermatophore , or sperm package, on the back of another, and the sperm are able to penetrate the skin and reach the uterus in the recipient leech. These particular leeches also rear their young, which blew my mind. Follow this link for more detail and great photos:
The other day I joined a Greater Lovell Land Trust group led by the wonderful Nat Wheelwright specifically to look for leeches (yes, I know that is a rather niche activity). We were especially hoping to find the medicinal leech, Macrobdella decora. The first part of the Greek name is a clue: it is BIG.
Nat Wheelwright and I waded into the muddy edge of the pond up to our knees, and chatted while we waited to be found. Nothing. Nat got out, I stayed. And a few minutes later…. (Thanks to Leigh Macmillan Hayes for the photo.)
Like most leeches, it can transform its shape from long and thin to short and fat. At its most elongated, it was about 4 inches long. It made no attempt to latch onto me (thank God), and Nat explained that they only feed on amphibians, fish and turtles, whose body have a sort of algae or slime that seems to attract them. My legs are blessedly not slimy enough.
After some failures, he managed to catch it in his net while I stood very still, and we got a good look at it.
It is a dark olive black, with a line of red dots along its back. The head (and mouth!) is on the right, and the tail ends in large sucker with which it anchors itself. Its belly is a bright orange:
In true Indiana Jones style, here is Nat with the leech:
He did remove it before it crawled into his ear.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, these are the leeches that doctors used to “cure” a multitude of ailments, including fevers, hemorrhoids, and pregnancy! Leech farms sprang up to serve the lucrative market. There is a great potted history of the practice here: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/medicinal-leeches-and-where-to-find-them
But it turns out there really was a benefit to some of this. Leech saliva contains an anti-coagulant, and so it can reduce inflammation in a very localized area. They are now used again in microsurgery and plastic surgery, and there is a thriving high-tech leech farm in Wales!
* My title comes from the quote below. (Finding good leech quotes is not easy! They are pretty much all derogatory.)
“If leeches ate peaches instead of my blood, then I would be free to drink tea in the mud.” Emilie Autumn
“The leech’s kiss, the squid’s embrace, The prurient ape’s defiling touch: And do you like the human race? No, not much.” Aldous Huxley.