“That this bloodsucking worm might suddenly advance conservation efforts is something few would have predicted,” he said.
Terrestrial leeches are found in humid regions stretching from Madagascar to southern Asia to a number of Pacific islands. Some 70 species have been described, with many more likely awaiting discovery.
They’re a diverse bunch: some are drab brown, others strikingly patterned in greens, reds and blues. Some crawl across the forest floor in search of a meal, while others occupy leafy perches and leap onto unsuspecting hosts.
They all share a taste for blood. The tiny vampires may swell to 10 times their body weight after feeding, transforming from agile, threadlike worms into engorged blood sausages. Remnants of a leech’s last gluttonous meal may remain in its body for months — a boon for researchers curious to see what it previously fed on.
The idea of using leech blood meals as an identification tool may have been inspired by a criminal case in Tasmania in 2009. Investigators recovered DNA from a blood-filled leech to link a suspect to a robbery.
Several years later, researchers published the first field study showing that the method worked to identify wildlife, too. While encouraging, the initial study was based on a sample of just 25 leeches caught in Vietnam.
Eager to see if the method might be applicable on a much broader scale, Dr. Tessler and his colleagues set out to conduct an investigation in Bangladesh, China and Cambodia.
The first step — collection — was simple, said Sarah Weiskopf, a biologist at the United States Geological Survey and co-author of the new papers: “You just get to your spot in the forest and look around for things crawling toward you.”
Of the thousands of leeches Ms. Weiskopf, Dr. Tessler and their colleagues captured, 750 were selected for genetic analysis. The researchers cut out the parasites’ digestive tracts and filtered them to extract DNA.
They used primers — short, known sequences of genetic material — to separate mammal from leech DNA, and then they sequenced the results and compared them to a genetic database of known species.
Leeches, the researchers reported in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity, are far from picky eaters: the parasites had fed on 26 different mammal species, plus three birds.
Nguyen Quang Hoa Anh, a project manager for the World Wildlife Fund in Vietnam who was not involved in the research, has been using leeches for several years to survey wildlife in remote jungles near the Lao border. He confirmed their utility as a monitoring tool, especially when paired with other methods.
“We need as much information as we can possibly get if we are going to identify endangered species and head off the extinction crisis,” he said.
Researchers have traditionally made such identifications by catching animals, collecting hair or dung samples, or setting up camera traps. Capture stresses out and sometimes injures animal subjects, however, and hair and dung can be difficult to find.
Camera traps are the current gold standard in tropical rain forests, but they tend to require significant time and expense.
In the second study, published in The Journal of Applied Ecology and led by Ms. Weiskopf, then at the University of Delaware, the researchers aimed to compare camera traps to leech collection. The researchers set up 30 camera trap sites in four forest reserves in Bangladesh and captured 200 leeches in the same spots.
While the leeches produced evidence of 12 species of mammals (including a small rodent, the Tanezumi rat, that the camera traps missed), the cameras documented 26 species. But Ms. Weiskopf pointed out that the cameras were rolling for nearly nine months, while the leeches were collected in just four days.
Simply collecting a few more leeches, Ms. Weiskopf said, could potentially put the method on par with camera trapping — especially when time and money are taken into account. The leech work cost just $3,770, while the camera traps came in at $24,800.
Given these advantages, Ms. Weiskopf said, “leeches could really complement some of our already existing biodiversity-monitoring methods, and move forward some existing biodiversity conservation efforts.”
Future studies, Dr. Tessler added, could be made even more efficient by blending hundreds of leeches into a slurry and genetically sequencing all of their blood meals in one go.
“I don’t know how big this will become, but I think leeches have quite a bit of potential,” he said. “This is just a fascinating method.”