A leech by any other name

Rainforest while climbing Gunung Kerinci, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Day one on the mountain and I pray for rain. I wait, leave the tarp off my tent (a clear invitation to the elements and ill-fortune), a strategy which has never failed in the past to produce an abundance of rain (in Madagascar I left my hammock for half an hour in which time over a foot of rain fell, accumulated in my hammock and drowned my money and valuables. I had to go snorkeling to retrieve my sodden passport which would cause me no end of grief at customs and back home…but I digress). However, fortune has wizened to my reverse psychology and my plan doesn’t avail me.

Not a drop and yet I’m still soaked through with sweat from the exertion of making it up to my base camp at 2000 Metres. Day slowly cedes to night. My hammock is perched precariously on the edge of a path which slides into a wet, and slippery slope. Each time I emerge from bed I walk a tightrope twig to get to the main path. I boil some water on my stove and wait in patient hunger. I refrain from licking my lips at the sight and smell of the processed, msg laden ramen noodles though I’m so ravenous that the noodles still crunch as I barely chew them. In an attempt to save on weight I have rationed myself to 2 packets of ichiban style noodles per day which works out to about 700 calories. Of course the 300mm f/2.8 lens which I rarely use weighs about 2kg and more than compensates…I curse it remorselessly.

At 2000 meters the night is cold and the clouds which have been absent all day slowly form from the exhaled breath of the mountain flora. In theory I could camp lower at an altitude that doesn’t have me doing jumping jacks in-between shots to keep warm. However, I have done my research and my quarry, the elusive giant red leech is known only from altitudes neighbouring 2600 M and that certainly coincides with the rough altitude at which I first made its acquaintance. Therefore, I have reasoned to myself, I am within prime striking distance if and when the rain does start to fall. This news should come as little surprise since endemism is often bounded by geographical features of the landscape. This can be soil composition (limestone karst formations influencing some pitcher plants), islands (95% of the fauna from Madagascar), or a host of other features including temperature and altitude, and at 3,805 M, gunung Kerinci certainly qualifies as a potential endemic hotspot. Especially considering that aside from the bukit barisan mountain range on the western side of Sumatra, the elevation remains consistently below 500 meters with few exceptions. However with no rain, there was also no chance of spotting my leeches and so despite spotting several interesting species day/night one proved a failure.

Yellow harvestman with turquoise coxae. Found during a night hike on Gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
Tiny red-legged mite from Gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
Backlit harvestman from Gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Day 2 and I awake from my hammock shivering. I have my blanket pulled over my head, and am wearing all my clothes, though there’s precious little additional protection that a pair of shorts pulled over pants can really offer. Same goes for a t-shirt pulled over a long sleeved shirt. Nonetheless it’s better than nothing. I sleep away most of the day and spend only a couple daylight hours doing photography. My water has begun to run low and cutting across the mountain I search for a stream. I follow signs marked ‘spring water’ though when I have cut a swathe through the overgrown path I arrive at dirty puddles festooned with toilet paper. I pass and return to camp. Night falls and I use up the last of my water to boil noodles. I curse the cloudless sky and go for another walk, operating under the painful knowledge that there will be no giant red leeches tonight.

A wonderfully textured millipede (Spirostreptidae). Found on during a night hike on Gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
A cicadellid nymph on the textured leaf of a climbing vine. Found during a night hike on Gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Paul Bertner 2013.

Day 3 and water has become an issue. Everything tastes of salt and grit and sandpaper. Parched lips are starting to crack and I can’t help but be amazed at the utter fragility of people. Even here in a moist rainforest, without water for a little over a day and I’m positively wilting! The lack of water and the inhospitable cold have forced my hand and I decide to descend in altitude in hopes that there might be some water at a lower elevation, otherwise I will be forced to return to town. I move camp down close to the mountain’s base and walk a dry river bed. Fortunately I only travel a couple hundred meters until I happen across a large pool of beautiful crystalline water. I take out my water filter and refill my bottle. I drink straight from the pump and this moment alone has made the investment in the pump worthwhile. No waiting time, no chemicals or boiling, just cold delicious water as fast as I can pump it. The water is perfect and it reminds me of the article written by food critic Jeffrey Steingarten in “the man who ate everything” on the composition and nature of the perfect bottle of water. “Is it the ratio of salts, the organics or carbonates?” he ponders as he tries to re-create in his kitchen the perfect bottle of water with the help of a chemist’s menagerie of tinctures and vials. He ultimately fails, however, I have to say this came pretty close. Despite the effort it will require to get back up to within the leech’s elevation range should it rain, I have made the right decision. I am further comforted by the warmer air and the greater diversity of species accompanying the more clement clime. A slight drizzle is enough to bring out a few snails and a hammerhead worm. Frustratingly the leeches remain hidden and a fear that I had not allowed myself to feel at the thought of never again seeing the giant red leech begins to grow. I become compulsive pouncing upon any red object that crosses my path: fallen leaves, berries, a hiker’s discarded shoe. I mutter and pace back and forth “Mimobdella” I might be heard to mumble, “Mimobdella”… and then “leech, giant red leech!” punctuated by a sigh, and downcast and defeated features.

Hammerhead worm (Bipalium sp.) showing fringed head. These slimy creatures eat slugs and snails. They are able to follow the mucous trail left behind and then slide overtop of their prey. Then via an eversible stomach they capture and externally digest their quarry. Found during a night hike on Gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Day 4 there is water and there are bugs and yet hope and happiness remain elusive goals. The only rain that falls are my tears.

Day 5 and I have run out of food and must return to town. I walk back the 6km or so in the morning hoping that I can re-stock and maybe organize a trip to a Nepenthes-rich spot that the guesthouse owner had mentioned in passing, Talang Kemuning. I arrive in town at 7 and am forced to wait an hour before everyone wakes up and I can run my plan by the owner. When he opens up for business he admits me into the house, smiles broadly, readily agrees to organize the trip and just as readily overcharges me for the privilege. I settle down for breakfast, and his wife prepares us lunch to go. While I’m eating I chat with a couple of Spanish women. They are doctors and are looking to do something for the day before taking the bus to bukittinggi 6 hours away. They decide to join me and together we pile into the owner’s car. It is a couple hours away and I decide to pass the time by regaling them with tales of leeches. “So do you have any pictures? You’re a photographer right?” they ask at one point. At one point I might have ridden roughshod over such a question and continued my leech diatribe. However, in my fragile state, full of self-doubt as I was, such a question was enough to silence me, much to the relief of everyone in the car. Upon arriving at the site I donned a pair of boots I had bought prematurely in anticipation of heavy rains and leech hunting and we climbed the muddy slopes into a heath forest full of ferns, sphagnum moss and pitcher plants. Loads and loads of pitcher plants! 5 different species! I ran from one to another. Well, ran…it might be called a prance by some or a skip by others. Whatever! The point is joy was rekindled, the world was made whole again and for a brief moment thoughts of the giant red leech were not foremost in my mind. I photographed them as much as I thought the patience of the two Spanish women could bear…and then I continued some more until they shot me irritated looks…and then I continued until the owner told me I’d be left behind if I didn’t get back in the car right then and now.

Aril of Nepenthes Ampullaria X Gymnanphora. Found during a day hike in Talang Kemuning, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
Aril of Nepenthes sp. Found during a day hike in Talang Kemuning, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Two hours back and the sun was setting as we pulled into the guesthouse. I had dinner and was deliberating whether or not to visit the mountain one last time when a crack of lightning lit up the sky and thunder roared with a fury that shook the window panes. There was a moment where only the retreating echo of the thunder could be heard, and then there was rain. Not any ordinary rain but a torrent which would have had Noah fleeing into his Ark declaring “it’s happening!!!” I rubbed my hands in glee, “and so it begins” I murmured. “You don’t expect for me to drive you up to the mountain in this do you?” the guesthouse owner asked incredulously. I brandished an untold some of money and no sooner had it vanished from my hands than he was in full poncho, boots and helmet. “You ready?”

…and now we come full circle…

Gunung Kerinci by night, Sumatra, Indonesia.

Having somehow convinced the guesthouse owner in the dead of night to drive me in the driving rain up to the foot of the mountain, I soon found myself on the back of his motorbike, poncho flapping in the wind, bouncing over potholes, veering dangerously around shadowy half-hidden obstacles and skidding across sections of road that had disintegrated into a rabble of rock. Lightning lanced the sky and the resulting thunder cracked like a whip at our wheels urging us forward ever faster. I could already feel the cold rain seeping into my pants, reaching its cold fingers into all the dry places to rob me of warmth. The motorbike’s engine revs for the final assault up the steep path (the road has long since degenerated into mud and sprouted weeds with the occasional loose slab of concrete) and finally we arrive. I step off the bike and immediately sink into the mud. The guesthouse owner looks at me as though to ask ” are you sure you want to do this? We can go back I can make you a nice hot chocolate, you’ll have a warm bed…”. I sigh and resist the lure of his unsaid words. He doesn’t waste any time in retreating back to the comfort of his warm home. There’s another crack of lightning, just enough to illuminate the silhouette of a lone biker on the horizon and then its gone, and there’s nothing. I let out a deep breath, turn on my flashlight, and head up the mountain path. The trail narrows quickly and soon I am swallowed whole like a Russian doll, first by the rainforest trail, then by the swirling mists shrouding the mountain and then finally by the all encompassing darkness…

At the mountain’s doorstep writhing in the newly formed puddles I spot a large earthworm. A slow smile spreads across my face and I take it as a sign. Not only does the presence of earthworms suggest that there might also be leeches, but unlike their blood sucking brethren, the giant red leech is predatory and feeds on these unsuspecting annelids (as well as any other slow, and slimy creature unfortunate enough to encounter its ravenous maw). I suppose I could have simply appreciated this fact, made a mental note and quickly moved on or…and naturally what followed was me stooping in the mud, as the rain lashed my back, and prying out a giant earthworm. The struggle was not as one sided as one might think, as that odious annelid exuded excrement and foul-smelling substances to dissuade me…I was not to be dissuaded! I held on despite the slippery chemical lather, pulling gently so as not to break it apart but insistently so as to prevent it from burrowing back into the loose soil. It was touch and go for a while with either of us poised on the brink of victory. It had millions of years of evolution on its side I had a brain that was at least slightly larger than my opponent’s.

At last after a struggle which lasted no more than a minute but which had beads of sweat contending with raindrops on my brow the task was finished and the worm sat at the bottom of a plastic bag, in my pocket writhing madly. Under the forest canopy the rain ceased its fearsome rail and turned to a gentle drizzle. The larger puddles were already draining away, it was only a matter of time before the sodden ground went from wet to moist and any chances of spotting the elusive giant red leech evaporated. Suddenly my climb up the mountain became a race in earnest with the receding water behaving like an hourglass, measuring my quickly vanishing odds. Up the mountain I climbed, past Pos 1, and 2. The only stops I permitted myself were to catch more worms, catching my breath was a luxury I couldn’t afford! At Pos 3 I met several Indonesians already snug in their tents weathering out the storm. I briefly deliberated barging into their tents, shaking them awake and demanding whether or not they’d seen any giant red leeches, but I didn’t dare waste any time! If this was indeed the Kinabalu giant red leech (Mimobdella buettikoferi) then it is known only from higher altitudes, roughly 2600 M and above. I was only at 2000 M. I hurried on past muffled snores. The trail became steeper at this juncture and so with the flashlight in my mouth I availed myself of any available branch, or protruding root, pulling myself up, inching upward. The rain had finally stopped although my jacket had long since become drenched with sweat. I tried not to think of the icy chill that would grip me as soon as my exertions ceased, not to mention the steadily climbing altitude and plummeting temperatures that accompany it. A sweaty 45 minutes and 2 more worms later I arrived at shelter 1, altitude roughly X M. I slowed my pace and with the earthworms burning a hole in my pocket proceeded onwards. With wild, feverish eyes there was a world of possibilities in sight. I scanned the puddles which but an hour earlier had been like deep lagoons, rich ecosystems of aquatic life sprung from a dreary desert. Now, they were returning to that sad state, after an all too brief fling with life. ‘Oh ye noble life, fight, fight against the drying of the night!'(1). As the seconds ticked by my searching took on a frantic note, and when leeches didn’t rise up from the ground like the earthworm at the beginning of the trailhead had prophesied I shook the branches. Whether out of frustration or out of some form of deluded conception that leeches would rain unfettered from the branches above it’s hard to say. Minutes, agonizing minutes dragged on without a leech in sight, the stress, it’s hard to convey…I’m certain it would break lesser men, but I held it together if only barely. I can’t say whether the clouds parted (though there was a brief moment when the rain stopped) or whether angelic choruses were heard (Indonesians do like to play their music well into the night), but it was magical indeed the moment the giant red leech revealed itself to me in all its giant red glory!

Giant red predatory ground leech from gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

The Kinabalu giant red leech (Mimobdella buettikoferi) is currently classified as an endemic species of Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The mountain which stands at 4,028 meters is home to many other endemic species including the Kinabalu giant earthworm which forms part of Mimobdella’s diet. Despite occasional sitings here it remains an elusive creature, emerging only after heavy rains which forces most observers are away. There is a paucity of information and what there is is restricted to a handful of journal articles. The few online photos one does find are mostly snapshots taken by incredulous tourists or guides with phones and point and shoots therefore it is only with some imagination and a great deal of difficulty that can one actually make accurate morphological comparisons between specimens. Scientific papers describing anatomy are obscure and difficult or else difficult to interpret by the layperson.

An excerpt from an article re-describing a holotype specimen of Mimobdella japonica:

“This species is characterized by the following characteristics: mid-body somites novem-annulate, two post-anal annuli, male gonopore in XI/XII, female gonopore in XII/XIII, 9 annuli (one full somite) between gonopores, strepsilaematous pharynx and three myognaths with stylets, possessing post-crop caeca in pairs, ovisacs reaching to XXI a2. The genus Mimobdella is placed under the family Salifidae, not Gastrostomobdellidae or Erpobdellidae, according to its possessing three myognaths bearing pharyngeal stylets.”

Clearly this ‘over-communication’ of detail hinders clarity and the deconstructionism of an organism into a list of morphological traits to the exclusion of life history and other interesting and pertinent details certainly presents an obstacle in understanding for the layperson or any non-specialist. Not to mention that many physical traits, even superficial details of the sexual anatomy, especially in the annelidae, may be shared between different species thus requiring genetic sequencing for conclusive species specific identification.

This was confirmed in a recent communique with an annelid specialist:

” I doubt that anyone could claim your species to be the same (as M. buettikoferi) without genetic (e.g., mtDNA COI gene barcode) to support their argument.  This is the only ‘objective’ option we have.”

Despite the relative abundance (5 specimens within 1/2hr) I found, there appears to be no public record of Mimobdella from anywhere other than Mt. Kinabalu.  Nevertheless the gross anatomical details such as size, colour, skin surface, and physical form of the specimens I photographed seem to match those of the Kinabalu leech. Moreover, the life history, dietary preference for annelids and gross geographical and altitudinal preferences seem to overlap strongly with those of Mimobdella buettikoferi further reinforcing the supposition that these two populations are either the same species or else sister species.

However in further communication with Japanese leech specialist and taxonomist Takafumi Nakano, this leech likely falls within the same genus as M. buettikoferi (ie. Gastrostomobdella) though is probably not the same species but a new, undescribed one.

Interestingly on the same night another morphologically similar leech was found at the base of the mountain. This was clearly a distinct species from Mimobdella buettikoferi, as it differed in colour (black) and size (didn’t exceed about 10 cm). However, the shape and other morphological details appeared very similar. The two species obviously share a recent common ancestor. However, until more research is done into this fascinating genus there will remain many questions, not the least of which is whether this species is a true endemic.

Giant red predatory ground leech feeding on an earthworm. From gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
Voracious, these large predators appear to be cannabalistic and will feed on ribbon worms, bipalium spp., annelids and other leeches with an overlapping range. Giant red predatory ground leech from gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
Giant red predatory ground leech from gunung Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

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(1) One of my favourite poems

“Do not go gentle into that good night” – Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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