Hirudinea - leeches

Class Hirudinea - the leeches

These are the leeches, and are considered the most advanced annelid class. They differ from the other two Classes in 3 important features.

Leech Body plan

Leeches are predominantly freshwater animals, but some are marine and a few terrestrial.

They range in size from 1 - 46 cm in length, but most are between 2 - 5cm long. The longest is the Giant Amazonian leech, Haementeria ghilianii, which can weigh up to 80g. This leech feeds off the blood of large mammals, including us, as they enter the water. As the leech bites an anti-coagulant in its saliva keeps the victim's blood flowing. Even after the leech has drunk all it can and dropped off, the blood continues to flow for a while. Haementeria ghilianii, along with some other leeches, also injects an anaesthetic so that the victim feels no pain as its blood is being drunk.

Like the oligochaetes leeches are hermaphroditic, but their clitellum only appears during the breeding season.

Gas exchange occurs through the skin, except for some of the fish leeches which have gills. They can have a number of tiny black eyes. They have two brains - one at the head end and the other at the tail end.

Leeches have a fixed number of segments, this is unlike the other Annelid Classes; the number of segments varies with species but is most commonly 17, 31 or 34. They appear to have many more segments because externally each has superficial grooves.

Leech Movement

Leeches have a looping movement, but are also very good and graceful, swimmers, they flatten their body into a ribbon-like shape and propel themselves forward in a series of vertical undulations.

Leech Food

Most leeches are fluid feeders. Blood-sucking leeches drink as much blood as they can from their victims. This blood is stored in special sacs at the side of their intestine and digested later.

Most can consume 3 times their own body weight in one meal. This allows the leech to survive long periods without food.

Freshwater leeches attach to their hosts only long enough to have one blood meal.

Eggs are laid in batches inside a cocoon or capsule attached to a solid object, or carried around on the underside of the adult, depending on species.

Haemopsis sanguisuga, horse leech

Above the horse leech, Haemopsis sanguisuga

Hirudo medicinalis, (the medicinal leech)

Medicinal leech

The Medicinal leech, above, is the biggest freshwater leech in the UK - lengths of 20 cm have been recorded. It used to be fairly widespread but once bridges replaced fords and drinking troughs replaced ponds it became very difficult to find in the wild as it no longer had easy access to its victims.

It has strong teeth which make a Y-shaped cut in the skin, and an anticoagulant in its digestive juices stops the clotting of the victim's blood.

It can consume 2 - 5 times its own body weight in blood, and go without feeding for 18 months. A full meal can take around 200 days to digest.

Medicinal leeches are raised commercially to obtain hirudin - the anti-coagulant used to prevent blood clots. For more details see the Know your leech page.

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Placoblella sp.

Placobdella sp, leech

Feeds mainly on turtles, but will also feed on alligators if there are no turtles.