One particularly fine evening in a wet sclerophyll forest up on the Atherton Tablelands, we went searching for gliders. We hiked out to an enormous Eucalyptus resinifera, dry leaves crunching under our boots as the sun was setting. Just at dusk, we gathered at the base of the tree. Our professor told us to stand in a position that we could keep for three hours without even twitching. The slightest noise could scare the gliders away.
We knew that they would come to the tree because the cuts in the bark were still fresh and oozing sweet sap that attracted honeyeaters and insects during the day. That meant that the gliders were still visiting and making fresh cuts in the bark at night.
As the sky darkens, we see floating shapes glide in swirls from a nearby Eucalyptus grandis. They seem elegant until they hit the trunk with a solid thud and fumble for purchase.
As we watch the gliders (5 Yellow-bellied gliders Petaurus australis and 2 sugar-gliders Petaurus breviceps) with powerful red lights that do not disturb them, our professor tells us in a soft voice that the sweet looking sugar gliders will sometimes eat their smaller cousins, the feathertail gliders. Creepy?
Then he falls silent. All of us are perfectly still, watching the gliders run about on the trunk, enjoying the soft noises of the forest.
It must have been more than an hour later when our professor said, “huh.” We look at him in surprise as he turns his flashlight from the gliders to his own belly, where sits an enormous, fully engorged tiger leech.
This was the point when one of the female students on the trip let out a shriek, and then there was total chaos. We were all covered in the leeches, as it turned out. After all, standing so still for so long, exuding carbon dioxide and heat, we were perfect targets.
If you’re not a banana bender (Aussie from Queensland), perhaps you’re not aware of the existence of terrestrial leeches. They do take one by surprise, a bit.
They’re not so bad, though, as parasites go. I’d much prefer a leech to, say, a paralysis tick. Them’s nasty buggers. I saw a friend laid out sick in bed for seven days after a particularly bad paralysis tick.