1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Leech

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[ 365 ]

LEECH, the common name of members of the Hirudinea, a division of Chaetopod worms. It is doubtful whether the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, which is rarer in England than on the continent of Europe, or the horse leech, Aulastoma gulo, often confused with it, has the best right to the original possession of this name. But at present the word “leech” is applied to every member of the group Hirudinea, for the general structure and classification of which see Chaetopoda. There are many genera and species of leeches, the exact definitions of which are still in need of a more complete survey. They occur in all parts of the world and are mostly aquatic, though sometimes terrestrial, in habit. The aquatic forms frequent streams, ponds and marshes, and the sea. The members of this group are always [ 366 ] carnivorous or parasitic, and prey upon both vertebrates and invertebrates. In relation to their parasitic habit one or two suckers are always developed, the one at the anterior and the other at the posterior end of the body. In one subdivision of the leeches, the Gnathobdellidae, the mouth has three chitinous jaws which produce a triangular bite, though the action has been described as like that of a circular saw. Leeches without biting jaws possess a protrusible proboscis, and generally engulf their prey, as does the horse leech when it attacks earthworms. But some of them are also ectoparasites. The leech has been used in medicine from remote antiquity as a moderate blood-letter; and it is still so used, though more rarely than formerly. As unlicensed blood-letters, certain land-leeches are among the most unpleasant of parasites that can be encountered in a tropical jungle. A species of Haemadipsa of Ceylon attaches itself to the passer-by and draws blood with so little irritation that the sufferer is said to be aware of its presence only by the trickling from the wounds produced. Small leeches taken into the mouth with drinking-water may give rise to serious symptoms by attaching themselves to the fauces and neighbouring parts and thence sucking blood. The effects of these parasites have been mistaken for those of disease. All leeches are very extensile and can contract the body to a plump, pear-shaped form, or extend it to a long and worm-like shape. They frequently progress after the fashion of a “looper” caterpillar, attaching themselves alternately by the anterior and the posterior sucker. Others swim with eel-like curves through the water, while one land-leech, at any rate, moves in a gliding way like a land Planarian, and leaves, also like the Planarian, a slimy trail behind it. Leeches are usually olive green to brown in colour, darker patches and spots being scattered over a paler ground. The marine parasitic leech Pontobdella is of a bright green, as is also the land-leech Trocheta.

The term “leech,” as an old English synonym for physician, is from a Teutonic root meaning “heal,” and is etymologically distinct from the name (O. Eng. lyce) of the Hirudo, though the use of the one by the other has helped to assimilate the two words. (F. E. B.)