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Turtles and leeches

This Eastern painted turtle was beset with several parasitic leeches, which were attached to her plastron by suckers. If you look closely, you can see another parasite—the blood-engorged mosquito on her shell, at left above.
TRR photos by Sandy Long

July 16, 2014

While walking at Shohola Recreation Area in Pike County, PA recently, I came upon an Eastern painted turtle crossing a dirt road. I bent down for a closer look and noticed that she was sporting a leech brooch on her plastron, just below her neck. She certainly couldn’t observe the unattractive adornment, and I decided to relieve her of this parasite.

After prying the leech off with a stick, a second leech was revealed underneath. Removing that one as well, a third, much smaller leech writhed in the same vicinity. Three leeches lighter, the turtle continued on her way, no doubt relieved to be free of my ministrations.

Leeches are segmented parasitic worms that feed on the blood of turtles, fish, frogs and some mammals. In our region, they have a particular affinity for painted turtles and snapping turtles and are one of the reasons not (!) to bring a wild turtle home, particularly if you already own domestic turtles.

Leeches are vectors for parasites that are easily transmitted to other turtles. A brief Internet search revealed that folks sometimes make this mistake and wind up plying turtle forums for advice on what to do when the leeches begin to appear in their turtle tanks.

Like earthworms, leeches are hermaphrodites, with each having both female and male reproductive organs. They also have two suckers, one at each end, with which they attach to their host and commence feeding.

In days gone by, leeches were used medically to remove blood from humans. Thankfully, this practice has largely ceased.