If you've ever been out hiking in the wilderness, you would know that there is no shortage of tiny animals out there that love nothing more than to feast on your blood. They range from mosquitoes to midges, from fleas to ticks, and of course, let's not forget about leeches - a group of animals so synonymous with blood-sucking that its name is also used as a term for exploiting the life blood of others.
But leeches aren't just found out in the bushes, there are hundreds of species of blood-sucking leeches that are actually aquatic, feeding mostly on amphibians and fishes. In fact, spare a thought for the fishes, which have a whole family of jawless leeches called Piscicolidae that are after their blood.
|Left (top) Antarctic toothfish with P. vernadskyi leeches on its body surface, and (bottom) in its mouth. Photos by Gennadiy Shandikov from Fig. 1 of the paper.
Right: Two live specimens of P. vernadskyi (the left leech has a spermatophore in its clitellum) from Fig. 2 of the paper
For fish, there is no escape from these leeches as they are found in a wide range of aquatic habitats, ranging from freshwater to the marine environment. They target a wide range of hosts, from trout and carp, to rays and sharks. Even in the inky depths of the deep sea, there are hungry leeches waiting for a tasty fish to swim by, and it is one of these deep sea leeches that is featured in today's post.
This post is about a newly described species of fish leech - Pterobdellina vernadskyi - which has been found parasitising the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) in the cold dark waters of Antarctica. The researchers who described this species collected them from fish that were caught by longline commercial fishing vessels - Antarctic toothfish are highly valued on the commercial market, where they are often sold alongside the Patagonian toothfish as "Chilean Sea Bass".
While most of the fish that the researchers encountered only had one or two leeches, some were afflicted with ten or more, and one unlucky fish was covered in twenty eight leeches all over its body. They tend to favour attaching to either the dorsal surface of the fish, or inside the mouth, where they are more sheltered. And P. vernadskyi can grow rather large compared to other fish leeches, reaching about 8 cm in length - so roughly the size of your finger.
Aside from its sheer size, another thing that differentiates it from other leeches are series of distinct, zig-zag ridges along its back and fin-like projections along its sides. It is not entirely clear what purpose those structures serve for the leech, though there are other deep sea ectoparasites which also have some unusual external structures. The researchers suggested that perhaps they serve some kind of sensory function that allows to leech to find their host, or they might be adaptations to the low oxygen levels of its environment, increasing the leech's surface area so it can absorb more oxygen from the surrounding waters.
In additional to those external features, it is worth mentioning that this leech's host, the Antarctic toothfish, is notable for producing antifreeze glycoproteins in its blood, which allows it to dwell in such frigid waters. But this additive would surely have some implications for the digestive system and physiology of P. vernadskyi compared with other fish leech that feed on hosts with more conventional blood.
Since the Antarctic toothfish can be found dwelling as deep as 2600 m below sea level, this would make P. vernadskyi the deepest Antarctican leech that has ever been recorded. However, it is NOT the deepest depths that a leech has ever ventured. That title goes to Johanssonia extrema which has been found in the hadal zone over 8700 m below sea level in the Kuril–Kamchatka Trench, where the waters are still and the pressures are crushingly immense.
Pterobdellina vernadskyi is just one out of two dozen different species of fish leeches that have been recorded from Antarctica, and there are a number of other leeches which have been reported from deep sea habitats. It would be safe to say that P. venadskyi, and other marine leeches that have been described in the scientific literature, represents only the tip of the iceberg. Where there are fish, there are leeches.
Utevsky, А., Solod, R., & Utevsky, S. (2021). A new deep-sea fish leech of the bipolar genus Pterobdellina stat. rev.(Hirudinea: Piscicolidae) parasitic on the Antarctic toothfish Dissostichus mawsoni (Perciformes: Nototheniidae). Marine Biodiversity 51: 15.