At the University of Copenhagen (in Denmark), a geneticist named Tom Gilbert has discovered a new method for detecting the presence of rare animals in remote locations. Blood from wild-caught leeches contains a special genetic signature that tells him what the leeches have been feeding on.
Leeches are parasites; they eat the blood of large animals (usually mammals). When a leech eats a blood meal, the blood is stored in a special food storage organ called a crop.
Scientists are able to harvest blood from the crops of leeches and run genetic tests on the blood to tell what animals the leech has been feeding on.
In a pilot (test) experiment, Dr. Gilbert tested the blood of 25 leeches that he gathered from a remote forest in Vietnam. He found that the leeches fed on at least 4 different rare mammals.
Some early experiments have shown scientists that using leeches can be a successful method for detecting rare animals in the wild, especially in areas that are difficult to conduct field work.
There are some limits as to how reliable testing leeches can be and the tests may not be able to answer all the questions scientists want to have the answers to.
More leech studies in different areas will be able to help scientists figure out creative ways to use leeches as indicators of rare wildlife.
A tiger leech in Borneo
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