Snuffleupagus: In the Garden Stuck on You

Dateline:  December 12, 2014*

Three striped mud turtle

Three striped mud turtle

The great reptile hunter was at it again.  I saw my dog Chili lying in the grass, alert and stretching out her paw like she was batting at something.  And, of course, she was.  Meet Timmy the turtle (named after a pull toy I owned as a toddler…ahhhh memories!).

In this species, you can’t tell the sex from the bottom, you need to see the tail

Timmy is actually a striped mud turtle (Kinosternon bauri), a rather small reptile species. They only get to be about 3 to 4 inches.
These turtles aren’t particularly large

I checked over the turtle and it seemed no worse for having an Irish Setter paw tickle it so I carried it back to the safety of the non-dog area of the yard.  That’s when I noticed a bump on the side of its shell.  It looked like a cake of mud, so I grabbed a stick to scrape it off.
oh NO! You have a lump…tumor or mud?

Well, hmmm, it’s ALIVE!!!!  And lookee that…it is curling back OVER the stick.  Seems I have found a leech and a pretty strong one at that.  As I always have my camera with me, I began the photo shoot.
ewwwwww! LEECH!

Leeches have segmented bodies with a large sucker at the rear and a smaller one at the front. Leeches have 1-4 sets of eyes (who knew?). Still, they apparently don’t see well.  During the identification search, I came to find out there are dozens of leech species and I while didn’t quite key this one to genus, I did determine it is the Glossiphoniidae Family.

Some genera in that family are pear shaped, which this guy was.  It also was pretty small…just shy of the diameter of a quarter which is also a characteristic of some members of this family.  To determine genus and species, I needed better photos of the bottom since a lot of the identification traits can be found there.

for species identification you need better photos of the bottom, showing the eyes (which would be behind the stick)

Although I removed the leech from the turtle and thought I had gotten it into a rearing container to take a few more photos, somehow it didn’t seem to be there when I went back to look.  Either it is the world’s greatest at blending in or I missed the container when I flipped the leech off the turtle.  Of course now I will be on the lookout for leeches because I NEED to know what species that guy was.
the front part reminds me of an elephant’s trunk

I brought the photos of the leech up on the computer screen.  Heck, that wiggling tubular thing looks like an elephant trunk or perhaps the nose of a certain Sesame Street character.

Leeches are famous as blood-suckers. The species that feed on blood have special chemicals in their saliva that prevents blood-clotting. Many blood-feeding leeches attack only fish, a few attack any vertebrate (including people), and a few are specialists on another group of animals, like turtles or waterbirds. There are also lots of leech species that don’t suck blood. They are predators, eating worms, snails, aquatic insects, and other invertebrates.”

According to the above source, parasitic leeches attach to their host in places that are difficult for their host to reach.  The turtle would have been hard-pressed to reach back where this sucker was cozied in.

Face closeup but still can’t see the eyes.

So, where do leeches fit in on the steps of the food chain?  Hosts of leeches include, fish, ducks and other water birds, amphibians, mammals (including humans) and turtles, such as Timmy here.

In turn, they are food for fish (apparently tit for tat), birds, aquatic insects, garter snakes, other leeches (wow, they are cannibals too!).  Snails and mites might eat leech eggs.

“Fishermen will sometimes use freshwater leeches for bait.” The leeches that I read about that were specifically referred to as “freshwater leeches” were in a different order/family (Gnathobdellida/Hirudinidae) and it noted that those could use turtles and mammals as hosts.  Leeches have been used for medical purposes for deliberate bloodletting.

a little creepy, but beneficial

I’m not sure that Snuffle was actually using Timmy as a host since it was stuck on the shell.  Having seen a broken shell or two, there never seemed to be any blood so I‘m not sure that it is possible to suck blood from the shell, and I’ve read where leeches often are found on the legs of snapper turtles which makes a lot more sense to me.  Maybe Snuffle was just hitching a ride or maybe the tables were turned and the leech was actually a “takeout” lunch for the turtle’s mate.  Or, perhaps they were playing hide and seek.

At any rate, despite being a little creepy to look at, they do have benefits in your beautiful wildlife garden, so embrace them, but not so lovingly that they become stuck on you.

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on December 12, 2014 at the defunct national blog
beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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