The Hirudo medicinalis species complex


Recently, Hildebrandt and Lemke (Naturwissenschaften 98:995–1008, 2011) argued that the taxonomic status of the three European medicinal leeches, Hirudo medicinalis Linnaeus 1758, Hirudo verbana Carena 1820, and Hirudo orientalis Utevsky and Trontelj (Parasitol Res 98:61−66, 2005) is “questionable” since “all three species interbreed in the laboratory”. This statement is in conflict with data published by Elliott and Kutschera (Freshwater Reviews 4:21−41, 2011), indicating that these leeches, which are reciprocally copulating hermaphrodites, represent reproductively isolated biospecies. Here, I summarize evidence indicating that these three European taxa, plus the North African “dragon leech” (Hirudo troctina Johnson 1816), must be interpreted as a complex of closely related species, and that the economically most important taxon H. verbana is polymorphic.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. Elliott JM, Kutschera U (2011) Medicinal leeches: historical use, ecology, genetics and conservation. Freshwater Reviews 4:21–41

    Google Scholar 

  2. Hildebrandt J-P, Lemke S (2011) Small bite, large impact—saliva and salivary molecules in the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis. Naturwissenschaften 98:995–1008

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Kutschera U (2004) Species concepts: leeches versus bacteria. Lauterbornia 52:171–175

    Google Scholar 

  4. Kutschera U (2006) The infamous bloodsuckers from Lacus Verbanus. Lauterbornia 56:1–4

    Google Scholar 

  5. Kutschera U (2007a) Leeches underline the need for Linnaean taxonomy. Nature 447:775

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Kutschera U (2007b) The taxonomic status of dark-pigmented medicinal leeches of the genus Hirudo (Hirudinea: Hirudinidae). Lauterbornia 59:1–6

    Google Scholar 

  7. Kutschera U, Pfeiffer I, Ebermann E (2007) The European land leech: biology and DNA-based taxonomy of a rare species that is threatened by climate warming. Naturwissenschaften 94:967–974

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Mann KH (1962) Leeches (Hirudinea). Their structure, physiology, ecology and embryology. Pergamon Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  9. Nesemann H, Neubert E (1999) Annelida, Clitellata. Branchiobdellida, Acanthobdellea, Hirudinea. In: Schwoerbel J, Zwick P (eds) Süßwasserfauna von Mitteleuropa. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg Berlin

    Google Scholar 

  10. Petrauskiene L, Utevska O, Utevsky S (2009) Can different species of medicinal leeches (Hirudo spp.) interbreed? Invert Biol 128:324–331

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Sawyer RT (1986) Leech biology and behaviour, vol. 1−3. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  12. Siddall ME, Trontelj P, Utevsky SY, Nkamany M, MacDonald KS III (2007) Diverse molecular data demonstrate that commercially available medicinal leeches are not Hirudo medicinalis. Proc R Soc B 274:118–124

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Utevsky SY, Trontelj P (2005) A new species of the medicinal leech (Oligochaeta, Hirudinida, Hirudo) from Transcaucasia and an identification key for the genus Hirudo. Parasitol Res 98:61–66

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to U. Kutschera.

Additional information

Communicated by: Sven Thatje

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Kutschera, U. The Hirudo medicinalis species complex. Naturwissenschaften 99, 433–434 (2012).

Download citation


  • Hirudo medicinalis
  • Species complex
  • Class Hirudinea
  • Leeches
  • Hirudo verbana
  • Biospecies