A (very) brief history of leeches

My first encounter with leeches took place when I was a teenager visiting an

apothecary’s shop in historic Fredericksburg, Virginia. One minute I was listening to the guide expound on past practices of bloodletting, and the next….wham! I was flat on the ground in a dead faint, taking the red velvet exhibition rope with me and narrowly missing an antique glass bowl swimming with—you guessed it—leeches.

Move ahead two decades, and I find myself at Adkins Arboretum, calmly plucking a squirming leech from a summer camp counselor’s ankle after wading in the Tuckahoe Creek. With maturity comes the ability to handle crises of all sorts, including the random leech or two.

Just how do leeches fit into the environment? A little bit of research revealed that the species of leech used historically for medicinal purposes is the North American leech, which thrives in freshwater lakes, marshes, and slow-moving streams. These leeches are parasites, feeding most often on the blood of fish, frogs, turtles, and mammals. They, in turn, are prey for fish, turtles, crayfish, and water birds. Leeches don’t need to eat often and can live an amazing one or even two years between meals. Technically a type of worm, the North American leech is often seen on the legs of snapping turtles (or, occasionally, camp counselors.)

My research revealed much more information about leeches, including how best to remove them,  leech anatomy, and germs transferred by leech bites. I would share that, too, were I not short on smelling salts.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Director


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