Leaping Leeches Loom Large in Madagascar

AP Photo/Alexander Joe

It seems, sometimes, as though there is no end to the bloodsucking pests that vex humanity - and no, I'm not talking about Congress. The latest, coming to us from the island of Madagascar, are not suit-and-tie-wearing politicians but rather leeches.

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Leaping leeches. Yes, really.

Personal accounts of jumping leeches have shown up in field notes for more than a century, written by explorers who would encounter these parasites in rain forests. But leech biologists have often argued against these claims, saying it was more likely that the bloodsuckers climbed onboard their prey unnoticed or dropped onto them from vegetation above.

Now, two videos provide evidence that at least one species of terrestrial leech in Madagascar actually can jump.

Here's one of the videos:

 

“We believe this is the first convincing evidence that leeches can jump and do so with visible energy expenditure,” said Mai Fahmy, a visiting scientist at the Museum and a postdoctoral researcher at Fordham University who is the lead author on a paper about the behavior in the journal Biotropica, out today. 

In 2017, Fahmy was on an expedition in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park when she serendipitously recorded a leech from the genus Chtonobdella springing back on a leaf and then leaping. She returned to Madagascar in 2023, this time for fieldwork in the Ivohiboro Protected Area. Once again, she observed a Chtonobdella leech making a motion similar to a “backbending cobra”—or to a spring being pulled back—and jumping to the ground. And once again, Fahmy was filming. 

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the jungle in Madagascar. (Was it ever really safe to go into the jungle in Madagascar?)


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OK, I'll admit, not many of us had Madagascar on our vacation plans. It might be an interesting place to visit, with lots of unique wildlife - lemurs and so on. But the idea of leaping leeches is something of a turn-off. I have some personal experience with leeches; having spent a fair amount of time in my younger years fishing in the muddy stretches of the upper Mississippi and the even muddier backwaters thereof, any foray into the water usually resulted in a leech or two. Those Mississippi River leeches were big, fat, and hungry; the only good thing about them was that, once detached, they made good bait. And of course, there are the other bloodsucking parasites common to much of the world - mosquitoes, black flies and other flies (the notorious Tsetse fly comes to mind), ticks, fleas - and Congressmen.

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The very idea of critters like this is enough to make one a little clingy. It's not just the leaping and blood-sucking but the idea that one might be enjoying a snack and having a leaping leech find its way into your treat, converting what may have been delicious into, say, leeches and cream. It's enough to make one want to undulate back to the airport and do your best leaping leech impression onto a departing airliner.

I had originally come up with a few more leech jokes, but they all sucked.

I'll show myself out.

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