Aug 23, 2019 I Paul Seaburn

New Kind of Blood-Sucking Leech Discovered in Washington DC

It’s a headline that’s made for a late night talk show monologue or a Saturday Night Live sketch – scientists have discovered a new species of blood-sucking leech in the place that could be considered the motherland of blood-sucking leeches – Washington DC. Of course, they’re not the same kind of blood-sucking leeches … or are they?

"All of a sudden, I started finding these things everywhere."

And not just on her legs, where researchers in parasitic worms like Anna Phillips normally find them after a walk through marshes and swamps. Phillips describes the rare discovery of a new kind of leech in the latest edition of the Journal of Parasitology. In 2015, she and a team of leech collectors found, either in their nets or on their legs, several orange-spotted, olive-green leeches in a Maryland swamp near Washington (insert your ‘drain the swamp’ jokes here). Phillips is the Curator of Parasitic Worms at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, so she took the strange leeches back to her own office to study them. (See them in a video here and a magnified photo here.)

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Prime blood-sucking leech territory

Phillips initially thought these were regular old North American freshwater leeches (Macrobdella decora) used in most medicinal leech applications like stimulating circulation to skin grafts, anesthetizing a wound or fighting inflammation. To be sure, she had graduate student and study co-author Ricardo Salas-Montiel analyze the DNA. He found such a huge discrepancy in both the DNA and the reproductive pore (gonopores) locations between these orange-spotted leeches and M. decora that Phillips ordered a team to go out and round up some more of them, not just in and around DC but in other marshes and swamps.

Phillips got the new leeches from swamps in South Carolina as well as Maryland. Now that she knew what to look for, she also went back and examined old leech specimens in Congress – sorry, in the storage rooms of the Smithsonian. There she found misclassified preserved orange-spotted leeches from swamps ranging from Georgia north through the Carolinas to Long Island, New York. She revealed in a press release that some of the specimens had been at the museum since 1937.

"It's been here this whole time. We just hadn't looked at it in this new way."

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Also prime blood-sucking leech territory

The new species is now known as Macrobdella mimicus. While there’s nothing really unique or revolutionary about the blood-sucking capabilities of Macrobdella mimicus, Phillips points out that they highlight the fact that there’s so much yet to be discovered in our world – often right around the corner.

"A discovery like this makes clear just how much diversity is out there remaining to be discovered and documented, even right under scientists' noses."

Wow, there IS something unique about these leeches – they show that diversity really can exist in Washington DC.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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