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Learning to live with leeches

fter years of living along the East Branch of the Ausable River, wading in its ankle-deep shallows and swimming its sandy-bottomed stretches, I’ve accepted leeches as part of the Adirondack package. My kids do, too. I recall a long-ago swim when my son was little. We trudged home in towels and flip-flops and, when it was time to peel off our wet clothes, he looked down and screamed: a thick, black leech had wrapped itself like a Band-Aid around one of his toes. I pried the leech off with my driver’s license, breaking its sucker-seal, and placed it on the floor. We watched it writhe and reach like a lopsided Slinky. We then scooped it into a jar and released it back into the river.

Through time there have been other leeches and other toes. There have also been visiting friends and family who, when finding themselves in, say, a tepid pool of river water, emerged covered in baby leeches. My kids showed them how to flick off the babies, each the size of a piece of overcooked rice and too small to properly latch their mouths.

Leeches are part of the phylum Annelida, which includes 15,000 or more species of segmented bristle worms and some 650 species of leeches in the subclass Hirudinea. Leeches are invertebrates with flat bodies divided into 34 sections, with suckers on both ends. They are “sanguivorous,” meaning they eat blood. In the Adirondacks they feed on a variety of animals, such as amphibians, mammals and birds. But there are some leeches that don’t suck blood, instead eating other invertebrates. 

While I’ve rarely seen a leech longer than an inch in the Ausable, a friend told me that after climbing Crane Mountain, in Johnsburg, she and her friends got to the pond near the summit and decided to cool off. Most of her crew dove in, but before she did, she dipped a toe in the water and “saw leeches lazily swimming around.” They were orange and yellow striped, and “stretched out as long as tongue depressors.” (On hearing this, that bloody, disturbing scene from the movie Stand By Me came to mind.)

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, leeches can live up to 15 years, though predators like loons and bass might shorten that lifespan. They’re dormant in winter and mate in spring. They’re also hermaphrodites, reproducing in pairs, one impregnating the other. They lay their egg-filled cocoons in sediment. 

Leeches are sometimes associated with polluted water, but the Ausable River Association’s science and stewardship director, Brendan Wiltse, says that “they can be an important part of healthy freshwater ecosystems.” Leeches are considered pollution-tolerant, but that doesn’t mean they are only found in polluted waters. He says, “If, when assessing water quality, you find a diversity of organisms, especially larger numbers of pollution-intolerant organisms, it means the water quality is good.”

Wiltse says he often sees large leeches in the St. Regis Canoe Area. He adds that in most cases they pose little risk to people.    

After a leech finds its prey, it latches its 100 or so teeth into flesh and injects a local anesthetic and an anticoagulant to secure a flow of blood. That sounds gory, but it’s actually painless. Leeches have been used as a medical tool since ancient times and, because there have­n’t been studies proving leeches transmit disease, they’re still used in some hospitals. Leeches can help encourage blood circulation in surgeries such as finger reattachment.

So what to do if you find a leech on your body? Do not salt, burn or spray it with a pesticide—that might cause it to vomit into your wound. (Legend has it, locals used to keep a canister of Morton salt at a swimming hole, aka Leech Beach, off Keene’s Grist Mill Road.) Instead, pry the leech off between its mouth and your skin with a fingernail, credit card or other flat-edge item. Clean your wound and you’re good to go.

And don’t forget to share your bloodsucker encounter at your next Adirondack campfire.        

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