The ecological benefits of animals like leeches, ticks and vampire bats are the focus of a new exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum
In a sprawling gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, curators and technicians crowded around two large coolers that had recently arrived at the Toronto institution. Wriggling inside the containers were live sea lampreys, eel-like creatures that feed by clamping onto the bodies of other fish, puncturing through their skin with tooth-lined tongues, and sucking out their victims’ blood and bodily fluids. Staff members, their hands protected with gloves, carefully lifted one of the lampreys and plopped it into a tall tank. It slithered through the water, tapping on the glass walls with its gaping mouth, rings of fearsome teeth on full view.
Having explored its new environment, the lamprey settled onto the pebbles at the bottom of the tank. It will remain on display until March as part of a new exhibition exploring the oft-reviled critters that bite, pierce, scrape and saw their way through flesh to access their favorite food source: blood.
The exhibition, called “Bloodsuckers,” includes displays of other live animals—mosquitoes, ticks and leeches—interspersed throughout the gallery. And dozens of preserved specimens, arrayed down a long, curving wall, offer a glimpse into the diverse world of the roughly 30,000 species of bloodthirsty organisms across the globe. Among these critters are vampire moths, which can pierce the thick skins of buffalo and elephants. Vampire snails target sick and dying fish, making for easier prey. The oxpecker birds of Africa pluck ticks and other insects off large mammals—and then slurp blood from their hosts’ sores.
Sebastian Kvist, curator of invertebrates at the Royal Ontario Museum and co-curator of the exhibition, knows that these animals are likely to make some visitors shudder. But to him, blood-feeders are the loveliest of organisms, the result of a refined evolutionary process. Leeches are a particular favorite of Kvist’s, and his research focuses on the evolution of blood-feeding behavior, or hematophagy, in these predatory worms. Sometimes he even affectionately lets the leeches in his lab gorge themselves on his blood.