Discontinuous locomotion and prey sensing in the leech

Cynthia M. Harley, Matthew Rossi, Javier Cienfuegos, Daniel Wagenaar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


The medicinal leech, Hirudo verbana, is an aquatic predator that utilizes water waves to locate its prey. However, to reach their prey, the leeches must move within the same water that they are using to sense prey. This requires that they either move ballistically towards a pre-determined prey location or that they account for their self-movement and continually track prey. We found that leeches do not localize prey ballistically. Instead, they require continual sensory information to track their prey. Indeed, in the event that the prey moves, leeches will approach the prey's new location. While leeches need to continually sense water disturbances to update their percept of prey location, their own behavior is discontinuous - approaching prey involves switching between swimming, crawling and non-locomoting. Each of these behaviors may allow for different sensory capabilities and may require different sensory filters. Here, we examined the sensory capabilities of leeches during each of these behaviors. We found that while one could expect the non-locomoting phases to direct subsequent behaviors, crawling phases were more effective than non-locomotor phases for providing direction. During crawling bouts, leeches adjusted their heading so as to become more directed towards the stimulus. This was not observed during swimming. Furthermore, in the presence of prey-like stimuli, leeches crawled more often and for longer periods of time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1890-1897
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 2013


  • Behavioral choice
  • Crawl
  • Leech
  • Locomotion
  • Sensory
  • Swim


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