Leech smuggler busted at Toronto airport

A fellow was recently busted at Toronto Pearson International Airport for allegedly attempting to "import" 5,000 live leeches in his luggage. Apparently an airport security beagles sniffed out the parasites. From National Geographic:

The man claimed that the leeches in his possession were for personal use and that their waste water would enrich his orchids, (says André Lupert, manager of intelligence for the Wildlife Enforcement Directorate at Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ontario Region.)

To Lupert, that seems shaky. “This sort of leech quantity would suggest it was for commercialization,” he says, adding that the man could have been trying to find buyers for leech uses such as treating frostbite and helping with recovery from face lifts. Some people want leeches for naturopathic home use, believing that they relieve pain or can cleanse the body of “bad” blood. Without prescribed antibiotics, however, any such use carries risk of infections...

When Canadian officials seized 5,000 leeches, they were immediately confronted with a problem: what to do with them? They didn’t want to kill the threatened animals—especially while the case remained under investigation. “Ultimately it’s up to the judge if he wants to view the leeches in person because they’re viewed as evidence,” Lupert says. Nor did the authorities want to be saddled with them long-term. These species aren’t endemic to Canada, so they shouldn’t be released into the wild, Lupert says...

The Royal Ontario Museum agreed to accept 50 of the leeches, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History took 1,000, and authorities are still looking for homes for the rest.

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In the Leech Library: Behind the scenes at the American Museum of Natural History

This is the second story in a four-part, weekly series on taxonomy and speciation. It's meant to help you as you participate in Armchair Taxonomist — a challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life to bring scientific descriptions of animals, plants, and other living things out from behind paywalls and onto the Internet. Participants can earn cool prizes, so be sure to check it out!

On the sixth floor of New York's American Museum of Natural History — far away from the throngs of tourists and packs of schoolkids — there is a cold, white room, filled with white, metal cabinets.

The cabinets are full of dead things; leeches, sea anemones, lobsters ... any kind of invertebrate you can imagine. Even a giant squid. All of them have been carefully preserved. Each soaks in its own, luxuriant ethanol bath. Here they sit, some for a hundred years or more, waiting for scientists to pull them out into the light.

It's a bit like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for slimy, crawly, spineless things. There are collections like this all over the world, containing every species of animal, plant, and microscopic organism. Together, they serve as a record of Earth's biodiversity, a library of life. In them, you'll find more than just random specimens. Some of the individuals are special. Called "type specimens", they serve as ambassadors for their species, real-world models that define what each species is. For instance, the leech species Myxobdella maculata is both a group of leeches and exactly one leech — A leech that I got to meet on a behind-the-scenes tour with invertebrate curators Estefania Rodriguez and Mark Siddall. Read the rest