This class includes the 500 species of leeches, flattened, predacious or parasitic annelids equipped with suckers used for creeping. Leeches range in length from about 1/2 in. to 8 in. (1 cm–20 cm); most are under 2 in. (5 cm) long. They are commonly black, brown, green, or red, and may have stripes or spots. Leeches are primarily freshwater annelids, but some live in the ocean and some in moist soil or vegetation. The majority of leeches are predators on small invertebrates; most swallow their prey whole, but some suck the soft parts from their victims. Some leeches are parasites rather than predators, and suck the body fluids of their victims without killing them. The distinction is not sharp, as many predatory leeches take blood meals on occasion.Leech Anatomy
Leeches are the only annelids with a fixed number (34) of body segments; each segment has secondary subdivisions known as annuli. A clitellum, less conspicuous than that of oligochaetes, is present; there are no parapodia. A leech has a small anterior sucker and a larger posterior one; the leech crawls by moving the anterior sucker forward, attaching it, and drawing up the posterior sucker. Most leeches can swim by rapid undulations of the body, using well-developed muscles of the body wall.
The coelom differs from that of other annelids in that it is largely filled in with tissue. Coelomic fluid is contained in a system of sinuses, which in some leeches functions as a circulatory system; there is a tendency in this group toward the loss of true blood vessels. The blood of some leeches is red. In others the blood lacks oxygen-carrying pigments and is therefore colorless; the oxygen dissolved directly in the blood is sufficient for respiration. Gas exchange occurs through the body surface of most leeches, although many fish-parasitizing leeches have gills.
The sense organs consist of sensory cells of various types, including photoreceptor cells, scattered over the body surface. There are also from 2 to 10 eyes, consisting of clusters of photoreceptor cells and located toward the front of the body.
Many leeches have a proboscis used for swallowing the prey or for sucking its fluids; others have jaws for biting. Many parasitic leeches are able to parasitize a wide variety of hosts. Most of the marine and some of the freshwater leeches are fish parasites. The medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, is one of a group of aquatic bloodsucking leeches with jaws. Another group of jawed bloodsuckers is terrestrial; these leeches live in damp tropical vegetation and drop onto their mammalian prey. Most parasitic leeches attach to the host only while feeding; a single meal may be 5 or 10 times the weight of the leech and provide it with food for several months. The digestive tract of bloodsuckers produces an anticoagulant, hirudin, which keeps the engorged blood from clotting. A few leeches attach permanently to the host, leaving only to reproduce. Predatory leeches are active at night and hide by day.
Like the oligochaetes, leeches are hermaphroditic and cross-fertilizing, although fertilization is internal. In some species the sperm are enclosed in sacs, called spermatophores, that are attached to the outside of the partner; the sperm pass through the body wall to the ovaries, where the eggs are fertilized. In other species the sperm are not enclosed and are transferred directly into the body of the partner by copulation. A courtship display is seen among some leeches at the time of mating. The fertilized eggs are deposited in a cocoon, secreted by the clitellum; the cocoon is buried in mud or affixed to submerged objects. The young emerge as small copies of the adults.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.