Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lifestyles of Not-so-rich & Famous

There are robins and there are leeches at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, but that is where any similarities end with the television show Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous.

The old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp is rich in biodiversity, including the largest leech we have ever seen on a turtle! The first two images show leeches (likely Placobdella parasitica) on a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Almost any turtle we handle in the swamp has at least one leech on its carapace. The leeches are able to access their meal between the scutes (sections) of the carapace or via the fleshy parts of the legs and neck. The turtle has a chance of scraping the leech off of its legs and neck. However, the turtle has little chance of getting a leech off of its carapace.

Quiz time...What does a reptile, like a turtle, seek that a leech would find uncomfortable? Heat from sunlight. In the last image, you can see that the leech has curled up and only the front and back end of the leech are actually touching the Yellow-bellied Slider's (Trachemys scripta scripta) carapace. The sun has dried the carapace and the shell is likely hot and getting hotter. Eventually, the leech will be in danger of desiccation (drying) and will be forced to detach and drop back into the water. Although all turtles will play host to leeches, turtles that bask in the sunlight tend to carry a significantly smaller parasitic load.

Images by Mark Musselman

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