There is no getting around that leeches get a bad reputation, and we are sure that a couple of our readers might even have grimaced at just reading the word. However, while movies and TV represent leeches through their parasitic relationship to humans, as an entity by themselves, leeches are quite fascinating, and can even be beneficial to humans!
Leeches fall under the vast category of worms and worm-like creatures that are annelids. Organisms that are part of the phylum annelida are invertebrates with segmented bodies. There are hundreds of species of leeches, and although the segmentation is not visible on a lot of the species and their appearance and size can vary significantly, they are all related, and all have many things in common. The primary thing that all species of leeches have in common is their diet, blood. In addition to this, most species of leeches are marine animals, meaning they live in aquatic habitats. The majority of leeches live in freshwater habitats, though some species live in saltwater habitats. That being said, there are even some terrestrial species of leeches!
Now, when it comes to their diet, this is the area in which leeches get their bad reputation. Many a human swimmer have waded into the waters of a river or lake and come up with slimy, black leeches covering their body and sucking their blood. This image is frightening in and of itself, and what many might find even creepier about this is how unnoticeable leeches are until they are already attached to one’s body. This is because as leeches attach themselves to the hosting organism’s body, they inject the host with anesthetics and anticoagulants to numb the pain that their razor-sharp teeth would inflict when they sink them into the skin to withdraw blood. However, this does not have to be creepy at all. Not only should we remember that leeches are simply doing what they must to survive, but we can also change our perception of the way they eat and consider their way of feeding an impressive evolutionary ability rather than the evil doing of a real-life monster. More importantly, however, we must take into account the benefits that leeches can bring us.
For eons have leeches been put to use for medicinal purposes. In Ancient Egyptian times, they served multiple functions, from treating damage to the nervous system, to dental work! Since then, various practices now considered questionable have been developed that utilize leeches medicinally. Today, leeches are used in the field of surgery, and have proven to be extraordinarily beneficial. They are specifically used to remove the build up of excess blood in tissue when doctors are performing procedures of body part re-attachment or skin grafting. Additionally, their aforementioned production of anticoagulants (a substance which inhibits blood from solidifying) has been used to prevent the formation of blood clots when undergoing similar procedures.
To conclude, this article has provided some brief insight into leeches: what they are, how they feed and why we should consider and even praise their abilities. Given what leeches can actually provide for us, we might even consider whether or not we should view them as parasites at all.