James writes like this, Robert like this

Hey hey hey! As almost none of our readers are aware, I have, for the past year and a half, been in possession of a medicinal leech (Hirudo medicinalis, presumably, but possibly not). Why have I? Well, I have been enamoured with the idea of leeches for a long time. I remember as a young boy visiting the deserted medieval village at Wharram Percy (this must have been in the late 90’s) with my parents and grandparents. Somebody had brought a net, and we engaged in that most enjoyable of pastimes, pond-dipping. Suddenly I spied an eel swimming out of a bank of weed and towards us. I called my father, who promptly netted it. It wasn’t an eel. It was, in fact, a tremendous leech. This should really have been obvious to me earlier, as a leech swims with an obvious up-and-down motion, as opposed to the side-to-side motion of the eel. We put the leech in a container and watched it. My dad suggested we put it in my grandparent’s pond, a suggestion they declined to act upon. Eventually we let it go, and it swam off back into the weed.

It was only several years later that I started to wonder exactly what type of leech it had been. From the size of it, I judged it must have been a medicinal leech. However, further research revealed that medicinal leeches had been declared extinct in the UK in 1910. Since 1910 small populations had been rediscovered, but as this report from 1996 states, ‘The medicinal leech has been recorded from only 16 sites post-1970 and 13 sites post-1980 in England, it is noteworthy that 7 of these sites are confined to a small area of Kent and another 4 sites are in Cumbria’. What were the chances that my family had rediscovered a medicinal leech in Yorkshire? And we had no photos or other evidence to prove it, even so. I thought perhaps I was mistaken, and I had maybe seen a horse leech instead.

Fast forward to 2011 – I found a horse leech in a pool amongst the sand dunes at Theddlethorpe in Lincolnshire. As soon as I saw it I knew that this wasn’t the leech I had seen in my childhood – it hadn’t the sheer bulk, the colours were different, it swam differently. I was now convinced I had seen a medicinal leech – so much so I added it to my personal species list (which shows just how certain I am). I returned to Wharram and attempted to see if leeches were still there. The pond was much more overgrown and weedy, and my thrashing in the water failed to attract anything. I checked the NBN gateway map for medicinal leech and found two records near York, both on Strensall Common, one from the 40’s and one from the 50’s. Nothing from the area where I saw one. Perhaps they are extinct there too, now?

Anyway, all my research about leeches just interested me further, so I acquired a couple in the September of 2011. Leeches can go a very long time between meals, so in theory I could keep them for months without having to worry about feeding them. One of the leeches passed away suddenly after a few months, however, leaving a solitary leech. A few months later that leech died too. Its body was very intact, so I kept in the jar on my desk for a month or so. The leech then came back to life on day, which surprised me. The leech continued surviving until the present day. It is sat in its sweet jar on my desk as I write this. Last week, as I watched the leech, I realised that in the 20 months it had been in my possession it had not eaten anything. I wondered how much longer it could go without sustenance, and a small spark of an idea that had been sat at the back of my mind for the past year burst into flames. You see, I kind of wanted to know what it would be like to have a leech feed from oneself, and the leech was undoubtedly hungry. Two birds with one stone.

So yesterday I ladled the leech out of the jar, and plopped it on my arm. It immediately fastened both the head end and the rear end to my arm and lay there. I couldn’t feel anything. For the first half hour it sat there, not seeming to do anything. I knew that they secreted anaesthetic chemicals, but I would have assumed I would have felt something. Then, whilst watching something on the computer, I felt a sting, like a nettle. This lasted for a few seconds, then passed. A minute or so later this happened again. This continued happening, on and off, for the next hour. In retrospect, it didn’t hurt very much, but I was very aware that the small amount of pain I was feeling was caused by the three jaws of the leech working their way into my arm, which made me feel a bit weird. So weird, in fact, that I decided to lie down on the floor as my legs felt a bit strange. My head felt very buzzy and odd, and I lost conciousness for a short while. (I have fainted once before in the past whilst getting injections; I assume this was due to the same reason – being a big wuss). When I awoke I felt much more clear-headed, and the leech was still fastened to my arm. Enjoy a picture:

Leech 1

As you can see, at this point the leech is still quite small. The ‘head’ is the upper end of the leech, the one nearer my wrist. In the background you can see a small fraction of my collection of shark eggs. Lucky you!

An hour later the leech was noticeably bigger:

Leech 2

I started to wonder about the positioning of the leech’s body – I think that the way it fastens on with its rear end so near the head might be a strategy to reduce pain – and thus discovery – for the animal it is feeding on. I walked around the house a good bit whilst feeding the leech, and I thought that if the leech was purely attached by the head, then my motion and the weight of the leech would probably cause an unpleasant tugging sensation, possibly even pain. The rear end of the leech thus takes some of the ‘strain’, as it were. The leech started to get very large indeed. I started to worry that when it was satiated, it might just let go and drop off me and burst on the floor like blood-filled balloon. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t (there will an evolutionary strategy in place, I’m sure) but I thought maybe I should sit down with it until it was done. It was then I noticed that my movement and the weight of the leech had caused the seal it had formed with its mouth to part slightly, and blood was beginning to bead there:

Leech 3

I thought the leech must be close to completion. I was mistaken. Half an hour later:

Leech 4

Half an hour after that:

Leech 5

Eventually, after five and a half hours, I decided the leech had had enough. I had a quick google to see the best way of removing them, and found that using something thin to break the seal around the mouth and rear end should probably cause it to detach. Using a the end of a pair of tweezers, I did so. The rear end was much easier than the front end:

Leech 6

But shortly the front end released as well:

Leech 7

You can’t see very well in that picture, but the incision the leech made is ‘Y’ shaped. I tried to get a picture, but it was bleeding too freely to get a shot of it. I put the leech back in its jar – fat and happy – and went to wash my arm. Now, in addition to injecting you with anaesthetics, a leech also pumps in a chemical called hirudin, an anticoagulant which stops the blood from clotting. This means my arm just kept bleeding and bleeding. I strapped a rudimentary bandage to my arm and went back to my computer. Unfortunately I didn’t notice when the blood soaked completely through the bandage and all over my desk:


I decided to have a bath, and then find a more substantial bandage. I never thought I’d post a picture of my dirty bathwater on the internet, but I thought this was good enough to share:

Aftermath 2

The flash actually bleached some of the colour out of that picture. It looked a lot redder in reality. I dried my arm, ruined a towel, and made a new bandage with kitchen roll and packing tape. I then went to bed, half expecting to wake up in a bed covered with blood.

I awoke this morning not covered in blood. I inspected the bandage. No sign of blood soaking through. I wondered if the anticoagulant effect had worn off, so I peeled back the bandage to check. As soon as I did so, the puncture began to run with blood again. I am now sat here with my third bandage on, presumably still pumped full of hirudin, and hoping that the bleeding will stop reasonably soon. The internet says 24 – 48 hours, so I’m getting towards half way through that. Pretty good blog post eh? Interesting anyway.

Oh, if you don’t like blood or anything you probably shouldn’t read or look at anything above. Ha ha!

Every fiber of my being wants to write “James died 1 minute after this post was completed.” but because I’m sensible I won’t do that.