Anna's Animal Facts

Anna's Animal Facts: Leeches

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Did You Know:  There are 70-1,000 different species of leeches in the world.

Did You Know:  Every continent on the planet has leeches, except Antarctica.

Did You Know:  As leeches fill themselves up their bodies grow and swell to many times their original size and they can survive losing up to 9/10 of their bodyweight.

If you’re a backcountry enthusiast, or even just a person who enjoys nature, you have probably encountered leeches.  Most people find leeches attached to their skin after a swim in the lake and regard them as a nuisance, but leeches are actually pretty cool creatures.  For starters, most leeches appear black or brown, but if you look closely, some leeches have intricate markings on their bodies. The common North American leech has a greenish-grey body with orange stripes on its sides and orange dots on its back, and there are other leeches you may see that have reddish markings on their bodies.

One of the most well-known facts about leeches is that they suck blood, but not all leeches are bloodthirsty vampires looking to suck the very life out of human beings.  Although the majority of leeches are hematophagous, meaning that they feed on blood, there are very few leeches that are interested in human blood. There are even a few species of leeches that eat dead plant material and small insects.

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Different species of leeches vary in size and most commonly are 0.3 to 3 inches in length, however a species of leech called the giant Amazon leech lives for 20 years and grows up to 18 inches long. That’s a leech that grows to over a foot long!  Luckily, the giant Amazon leech does not live in North America.  Different species of leeches have different lifespans, with some living for upwards of ten years.

Although you might not like leeches, catfish, dragonfly larvae, and largemouth bass all love them.  Walleye or Pickerel also like to eat leeches, so many fishermen will use leeches as bait.

Anyone who has been bitten by a leech will know that the bite is painless and the leech can often go unnoticed.  When a leech pierces its prey’s skin it produces an anesthetic that reduces the pain and makes it easier for them to suck the blood.

If you have ever found a leech stuck to you, you probably noticed they are hard to get off, but there is no need to panic.  Over the many years that my family has been camping we have found that the best way to get a leech off of you is to take it Auntie Lisa.  She is a leech whisperer and coaxes them to let go by gently pressing their heads to the side and breaking the suction with her fingernail (we used to pour salt on them, but then we read that this can make them regurgitate (i.e. throw-up) into the wound and besides being dangerous, that's just plain gross).   Once the leech is safely removed you can throw it back in the lake, stream, pond, or whatever body of water you happened to pick up the leech from.

You can find a diagram of how to remove a leech here.  

Turtle Rescue

On our last camping trip in Algonquin Park we rescued a turtle. The turtle was found while Dad, Uncle Dave, and I were canoeing close to shore filming Josh soloing his canoe. Josh spotted the turtle and noticed that there was something stuck on the turtle’s right forefoot. It was a clam!

 "Zoom" the turtle trying to swim with a clam stuck to his right forefoot..

"Zoom" the turtle trying to swim with a clam stuck to his right forefoot..

Luckily Josh had his fishing net with him, so we scooped the turtle up and I grabbed it out of the net. The turtle wasn’t too happy to be picked up and held in the air, but Dad quickly pried the clam open with his Griptilian knife. Once the clam was off, the turtle (who we named Zoom) calmed down and we were able to take some pictures of him (we could tell he was a male by his long front claws).  

We also removed a couple of leeches that were attached to his shell.  Zoom was then released and swam off to hunt and be a happy turtle. 

In hindsight we think that Zoom had actually asked for help.  Normally turtles swim away from people, but Zoom actually swam towards Josh's canoe and circled around the canoe until we scooped him up in the net. Also, after the clam was pried off he didn’t freak out and struggle to be put down. Instead he was calm and allowed us to take pictures of him. Afterwards, he didn’t swim frantically away like a frightened turtle would, but stayed around the canoes for a little while before swimming off. Overall this was a very exciting adventure!

 Zoom waves goodbye as he is released back into the water.

Zoom waves goodbye as he is released back into the water.

Anna's Animal Facts - Snakes

by Cousin Anna (age 12)

Did you know you can tell if a snake is active during the day or night by the shape of its pupils? 

If the snake’s pupils are slit-shaped like a cat’s, this means that the snake is active during the night. If a snake’s pupils are round like ours, this means that the snake is active during the day.  

Did you know snakes do not have eyelids? 

They have an eye cap that protects their eyes so that they don’t get stuff in them.

Did you know snakes don’t have ears? 

They sense vibrations instead of hearing sounds.

 

Snakes are commonly thought to be slimy, slithery creatures.  This is nowhere near the truth.  A snake’s hide is dry and smooth.  Snakes shed their skin every once in a while when they get too big for the old skin.  You can tell that a snake is near the time it sheds its skin when its eye caps get cloudy.  When a snake sheds its skin it sheds the eye caps as well.

Like frogs, snakes swallow their food whole.  Snakes are carnivores.  The snakes that live in Canada eat a variety of foods such as frogs, small rodents, insects, and sometimes small birds.  They usually eat their prey alive.

Before you go outside to catch a snake, make sure you research the snakes in your area.  If there are any poisonous snakes native to your area, make sure you know what they look like and never try to catch them.  Make sure you always know what kind of snake you are catching so that you don’t accidentally catch a deadly snake instead of a harmless snake.  Luckily I live in an area where there are only harmless snakes, so I have nothing to worry about.

Go out into the forest or to the pond in late spring, summer, or early fall and look for snakes.  You can often find them sunning themselves on rocks or in patches of sunlight on the forest floor.  To catch a snake, grab it around the middle of its body and behind its head. I do not hold the snake right behind its head because this allows no movement for the snake. Don’t squeeze or drop the snake. Be gentle. The snake might thrash around. Some snakes let out a smell called musk when they feel scared. This might happen to you when you catch a snake.  Once the snake stops squirming you can let go of its head and just hold the snake gently around the middle of its body.  Let the snake slither through your hands and wind around you.  It might want to check you out too.  Hold it for a few minutes and then let the snake go by setting it gently on the ground where you found it.  Have fun with your snake catching!

Anna's Animal Facts: Owls

By Cousin Anna (Age 12)

Cousin Anna

Did You Know? Contrary to what many people think, owls cannot turn their heads a full 360 degrees. They can only turn their heads a little bit more than 180 degrees.

On the last day of our recent overnight trip I made an interesting discovery - an owl pellet!

The owl pellet at the base of the tree.

What is an owl pellet? An owl pellet is the fur (or feathers) and bones of the animal an owl ate. An owl does not eat its prey in pieces; it swallows its prey whole! Owls don’t have a gag reflex. This means that an owl can’t choke when swallowing its prey. When an owl swallows its prey, it digests the meat and the ‘good stuff’, and spits up a ball of the fur, bones, and everything it can’t digest. This ball is called an owl pellet.

The bones in the owl pellet.

Owl pellets can be found at the base of an owl’s frequent perch, and are usually grey in colour. I found one at the base of a pine tree near my tent. It looked like a grey lump with a few bones sticking out of it. I recognized the pellet because I had dissected one before.  I got some tweezers from the first aid kit (we threw them out after) and pulled it apart. In the pellet I found the eye sockets and the top of the skull of a small rodent. I also found the jawbone and some vertebrae. There were foreleg and rear leg bones (I couldn’t tell which was which) and a few other fragments of the skull. It was an interesting find. We emailed the Algonquin Park Wildlife Research Station with pictures of the bones we found in the pellet, and asked what kind of rodent they might be from. The researchers haven’t gotten back to us yet, but we are hoping they will answer soon.

You can get your own owl pellets to dissect from Boreal Northwest.

Anna's Animal Facts: Frogs (by Cousin Anna, Age 12)

Did You Know? You can tell if a frog is male or female by the size of its eardrums.

If a frog’s eardrums are bigger than its eyes, then it’s a male. If the eardrums are the same size or smaller than the frog’s eyes, then it’s a female.  A frog’s eardrums are the round discs just behind its eyes.

 Here I'm holding a frog that I caught and named Goliath. You can tell this frog is male because its ear drums are bigger than its eyes.

Here I'm holding a frog that I caught and named Goliath. You can tell this frog is male because its ear drums are bigger than its eyes.

Did you ever wonder what frogs eat? I was surprised to find out that they aren’t vegetarians. Frogs eat insects, snails, spiders, small fish, worms, tadpoles, and believe it or not, other frogs as well. Despite being little carnivorous cannibals, frogs don’t have teeth! They swallow their food whole. Although these little creatures sound fierce, they are pretty low down on the food chain, and are regularly consumed by birds, including Blue Herons, hawks, and egrets, as well as aquatic turtles, snakes, racoons, bears, foxes, fish, and otters. Even some people enjoy them as a delicacy (yuck!).

How do I catch a frog?  I don’t use a net because if you miss the frog you can hurt it with the edge of the net.  Frogs can get tangled up easily in nets, and it probably hurts the frogs when they are rubbing up against the netting.   I prefer to use my hands.  One technique is to come up from behind and grab the frog with my hand.  But when I use this technique the frog often slips away. So, instead, I usually use two hands and cup them on top of the frog, then scoop it up. Be careful not to squeeze or drop the frog. It is not a toy.

After you catch a frog, don’t throw it back into the water. This could hurt the frog or even kill it.  When you want to let your frog go, gently set it down by the water, or submerge your hand and let the frog swim out of your hand.  After touching a frog you should wash your hands.  Frogs can have salmonella on their skin and salmonella can make humans sick.

Becoming an excellent frog catcher takes practice.  They are slippery little guys, so don’t give up if you miss them on your first few tries.  Remember, practice makes perfect.