Aquatic and Land Animal Diversity
What is the largest leech known?
Leeches have been used in the practice of medicine since ancient times. During the 1800s, leeches were widely used for bloodletting because of the mistaken idea that body disorders and fevers were caused by an excess of blood—thus, leech collecting and cultures were practiced on a commercial scale during this time.
The medical leech, Hirudo medicinalis, is used even today to remove blood that has accumulated within tissues as a result of injury or disease. Leeches have also been applied to fingers or toes that have been surgically reattached to the body. The sucking by the leech unclogs small blood vessels, permitting blood to flow normally again through the body part. The leech releases hirudin, secreted by the salivary glands, which is an anticoagulant that prevents blood from clotting and dissolves preexisting clots. Other salivary ingredients dilate blood vessels and act as an anesthetic. A medicinal leech can absorb as much as five to ten times its body weight in blood. Complete digestion of this blood takes a long time, and these leeches feed only once or twice a year in this manner.
Most leeches are between 0.75 inch and 2 inches (2–6 centimeters) in length, but some “medicinal” leeches reach 8 inches (20 centimeters). The giant of all leeches is the Amazonian Haementeria ghilanii (from the Greek term haimateros, meaning “bloody”) that can reach up to 12 inches (30 centimeters) in length.