Lovely Leeches

The anterior sucker of this leech has just found a snack.  Photo courtesy of Peter Woodard at commons.wikimedia.org

The anterior sucker of this leech has just found a snack. Photo courtesy of Peter Woodard at commons.wikimedia.org

Taman Negara, or National Park, in Malaysian, is one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Now a protected area, it is home to numerous species, including elephants, tigers, bats, monkeys, and the one animal that gets more mention than all the others put together…leeches.

We spent three humid days in the jungle, home to more insects, bugs, butterflies, creepies, and crawlies than you could ever dream of. But I’m here to tell you about the leeches. I think I’m the only one in our group that avoided them. The almost knee-high rubber boots, pants tucked in, long-sleeved shirt, and gloves probably helped. So I sweated my guts out and had to carry more than 15 pounds of water in my backpack for the one hike I bothered to go on. Hey, it worked for me!

One woman in our group was very paranoid about getting them. I understand she did quite interesting dance moves the few times she found them on her shoes, trying to get a bite (I was at home, relaxing in my air-conditioned hut, so I have to take their word for it.) After one hike, she got back to the hotel room and was absolutely horrified to find one on her chest, and another that had climbed up her legs and planted itself high on her inner thigh. Luckily, her husband was able to remove them for her.

Leeches suck blood. They have sensors on their body that detect light, temperature, and vibration. So when hikers cross their path, they jump up and start inching around, looking for breakfast. Or lunch, or dinner…or a juicy snack.

We spotted one on the first hike. It was inching across the forest floor, over leaves and past several different kinds of ants, looking like a skinny earthworm, reddish-brown in color, looping its body and stretching it. Later my roommate had two on her ankle. One fell off as she walked past my little hut (we had separate little huts there) onto the cement path, leaving a puddle of blood.

The leech on the left has just fallen off, leaving a trail of blood.  The leech on the right, just above her ankle, is still feeding.

The leech on the left has just fallen off, leaving a trail of blood. The leech on the right, just above her ankle, is still feeding.

Leeches can increase in size from 2-10 times when they are full of blood. The ones on her leg were swollen into an oblong teardrop shape, with the anterior sucker (they have two) end staying small and wormlike. The leech that had fallen off tried to inch its way back onto her leg, then apparently either was too full and fat to climb up again, or decided it was full and stopped.

On the right of this engorged leech is the anterior sucker, inching as it moves, leaving a puddle of blood behind.

On the right of this engorged leech is the anterior sucker, inching as it moves, leaving a puddle of blood behind.

When a leech bites, it injects a painkiller so you don’t feel it, then a mucus to help stick to you, as well as an anticoagulant called hirudin. This keeps your blood flowing freely until the leech is full and falls off, two to four hours later, and for a while afterwards. Many a hiker has been surprised by a bloody shoe or ankle, finding a leech they otherwise wouldn’t have known was there.

Those very same things that make the leech so disgusting, however, make it useful to medicine. They have been used by the Indians, Greeks, Egyptians, and medieval Europeans for centuries. Since the 1980’s they have been used in plastic and reconstructive surgery to help remove blood clots and to bring circulation to areas such as fingers that have been cut off and reattached, to get blood flowing again. They have also been used to treat black eyes, sucking the blood out that causes the black discoloration.

Here in Malaysia, leech farms have been broken into, because they are quite valuable in the medical world. Leeches can sell for up to 60 Malaysian ringgit per kilo (2.2 pounds.) That’s about $17 U.S., or enough to buy you about 12 lunches of curried rice and laksa, plus ais limau (like lemonade.)

Shall I bring some home as souvenirs? Just kidding! Nature is amazing.

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