Climate change sucks life from rare leech

OSLO (Reuters) - A rare European leech seems to be headed towards extinction as global warming dries out the Austrian forest home of the tiny blood-sucker, scientists said on Wednesday.

Researchers at German and Austrian universities found only one juvenile leech in birch forests near Graz, Austria, in searches from 2001-2005. Scientists had found 20 specimens, up to 4 cms (1.6 inches) long, in the same forests in the 1960s.

“Recent human-induced warming may have led over past decades to the almost complete extinction of a local population of this rare animal species,” they wrote in a study to be published in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

A rise in average summer temperatures in the region of 3 Celsius (5 Fahrenheit) since the 1960s, widely blamed on greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, had apparently dried out the forests where leeches lived on moist bark and leaves.

The leeches, formally known as Xerobdella lecomtei, were first found only in 1868 and feed on earthworms. More studies would be needed to see if the leeches were managing to survive in a cooler, higher region.

U.N. studies say that the world may be facing the worst wave of extinctions since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago because of threats such as climate change and a loss of habitats to cities, roads and farms.

The scientists said that it was a rare example of a species in trouble even though its habitat was broadly intact. The one leech found died after about 10 months in a laboratory.