, Volume 94, Issue 12, pp 967–974 | Cite as

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

  • U. KutscheraEmail author
  • I. Pfeiffer
  • E. Ebermann
Original Paper


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°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.


Climate warming DNA barcoding Land leeches Xerobdella 



This paper is dedicated to the naturalist Georg Ritter von Frauenfeld (1807–1873) on the occasion of his 200th birthday. We thank Mr. C. Grosser (Leipzig, Germany) and Dr. D. Rinke (Vogelpark Walsrode, Germany) for the provision of leech specimens. Financial support was provided by the Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Technologie (Förderkennzeichen 03 ESFHE 021).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of BiologyUniversity of KasselKasselGermany
  2. 2.Institute of ZoologyKarl-Franzens-University of GrazGrazAustria

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