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In blood-sucking leeches, scientists find a genetic snapshot of local wildlife

The arduous task of assessing animal populations in the wild takes plenty of sweat and tears. Now a group of scientists is adding blood to that mix, in an innovative method that takes field surveying to a sanguine yet promising extreme. The hero of this tale is the humble blood-sucking leech, an invertebrate that feeds off a wide range of animals, from birds to mammals to humans, and whose vampiric qualities led to their use in historic and some current medical treatments. But where the blood drawn by leeches was once considered full of vile humors, now researchers see in it a treasure trove of DNA that sheds light on the animals that the leeches feed on. It’s looking for you. A leech of the terrestrial Haemadipsa (blood-sucking) genus senses and reaches out to a potential source of lunch. Photo © AMNH/M. Siddall Researchers from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the University of Delaware, and Kunming Institute of Zoology in China/University of East Anglia in the U.K. have used genetic analyses to identify the animals preyed upon by a given parasitic leech in the remains of the leech’s most recent meals. Scientists can extract invertebrate-parasite-derived DNA (iDNA) of host mammals because leeches store blood meals inside them for several months after feeding. Building on a 2012 pilot study of the use of iDNA methods to detect mammal presence at a site in Vietnam, the team tested the utility of leeches to assess Asian mammal communities across a broader range of…

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