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Last month my wife and I made an unforgettable trip to Malaysian Borneo, to Mount Kinabalu and vicinity.

It was our second time to Borneo, and will not be our last. In our mind's eye a mist seems to arise from this island, with luring tendrils that tug gently at our imaginations (like the animated smell of a pie in a saturday morning cartoon). It is truly a paradise for the natural history nerd. Smothered by biodiversity, we strolled through rainforest with dazed delight. All the way, snapping photos with our relatively inexpensive camera.

I plan to do a series of posts showcasing some of these photos. A photo journal for each of our natural history hikes. This is the first short one.

Here, I want to tell you about a wonderful retched creature. Because if you wish to gain entry to the green-cloaked hallways of the Borneo rainforest, you must pay a toll—one of blood. A story:

A sucker meets the slick surface of a leaf, and holds. Reaching out again, stretching elastic muscles for the next grip. Emerging from damp earthen debris, where the dry does not venture. Rain equalizes, and makes the light as water-laden as the darkness. Hunger draws us out. And now there is a shimmering wave of heat ahead. It is large, an amorphous radiation of heat, a vibration of movement. Of blood. Hunger draws us on. Light turns to dark—it is close! Reach out a wavering tentacle, all of ourself, looking for a brief connection, enough to hang on, unnoticed, one with our prey. Sucker meets warmth, and we are away. Flesh yields to rasping teeth and sustenance flows. Soon to be engorged, satiated, to live another day. The damp earth entices again. It is time to flee the sun, as the moisture flees it, until the next rain. Until blood is carried past again.

We are a terrestrial leech, a common denizen of the Northern Borneo rainforest. Unlike the leaches that most people are familiar with, which are primarily aquatic, these leeches are perfectly at home on land. They are still at risk of drying out, but the rainforest is wet enough that they can be quite active during the day, especially after it rains. They tend to climb up on vegetation and stretch themselves out into an opening such as a hiking trail, and wave wildly, trying to attach to anything that might pass. This was the first terrestrial leech we saw, a Tiger Leech (Haemadipsa picta):

The second one we saw was attached to my leg (and the third, and the fourth, ...):

This one is the other species of terrestrial leech that occurs here: the Brown Leech (Haemadipsa zeylanica). Once they are fully engorged the leach will drop off and return to a damp, dark place to digest and take shelter from the drying heat of the sun. The bite can be felt, and for me was quite uncomfortable; the bites are still itching slightly right now, more than a month later. Apparently, the idea that leeches secrete an anesthetic in their saliva (to be sneaky) is nothing more than a myth. They do secrete a chemical that acts as a blood-thinner and inhibits clotting, however, as I soon found out.

The aftermath of a leech. I hear it is much worse if you do not let the leech finish its business and drop off naturally.

More leech handiwork, bloodstains.

Unfortunately, we didn't encounter the coolest terrestrial leech on Mount Kinabalu: the endemic Kinabalu Giant Red Leech.

Video by Ian Hall.

These leeches are huge (up to 30 cm!). Luckily they don't feed on mammals but rather other invertebrates, including the Kinabalu Giant Earthworm.

Borneo, can you get any cooler?










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Russell Dinnage


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MetaEvoPhyloEcoOmics

Open science journal about ecology, evolution, data analysis, and visualization.

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