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Naturwissenschaften. 2007 Dec;94(12):967-74. Epub 2007 Jul 24.

The European land leech: biology and DNA-based taxonomy of a rare species that is threatened by climate warming.

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  • 1Institute of Biology, University of Kassel, Heinrich-Plett-Strasse 40, Kassel, Germany.


The European land leech Xerobdella lecomtei was discovered in 1868 and is one of the rarest animals on Earth. During the 1960s, several individuals of these approx. 40 mm long, cold-adapted terrestrial annelids that inhabit the moist soils of birch forests around Graz, Austria, were investigated. Only one original research paper has been published on the biology of this species. Between 2001 and 2005, we re-investigated the morphology of preserved specimens and searched for living individuals in their natural habitat that appeared to be intact. We found only one juvenile individual (length approx. 10 mm), indicating that this local leech population became largely extinct over the past four decades. The feeding behaviour of our 'lonesome George of the annelids' was studied and is described here in detail. After its death, the Xerobdella individual was used for chemical extraction and molecular studies (deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] barcoding, based on one gene, the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I). In addition, novel DNA barcodes for a land leech from Madagascar and a recently discovered species from Europe were obtained. Our phylogenetic tree shows that X. lecomtei is not a member of the tropical land leeches (family Haemadipsidae), as previously thought, but represents a separate line of descent (family Xerobdellidae). The decline of the local leech population around Graz correlates with a rise in average summer temperatures of +3 degrees C between 1961 and 2004. This warming led to a drastic reduction in the moisture content of the soil where X. lecomtei lives. We suggest that human-induced climate change without apparent habitat destruction can lead to the extinction of populations of cold-adapted species that have a low colonization ability.

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