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Switching senses
Date:11/1/2011

PASADENA, Calif.Many meat-eating animals have unique ways of hunting down a meal using their senses. To find a tasty treat, bats use echolocation, snakes rely on infrared vision, and owls take advantage of the concave feathers on their faces, the better to help them hear possible prey. Leeches have not just one but two distinct ways of detecting dinner and, according to new findings from biologists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), their preferred method changes as they age.

Medicinal leeches, like many aquatic animals, use water disturbances to help them find a meal. Juvenile leeches eat the blood of fish and amphibians, while adults opt for blood meals from the more nutritious mammals. Since it was known that leeches change their food sources as they develop, the Caltech team wanted to know if the way they sense potential food changed as well. Their findings are outlined in a paper now available online in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The group set up experiments to test how much leeches rely on each of the two sensory modalities they use to find food: hairs on their bodies that can note disturbances in the water made by prey moving through it and simple eyes that can pick up on the passing shadows that those waves make. They monitored both juvenile and adult leeches as they reacted to mechanical waves in a tank of water or to passing shadows, as well as to a combination of the two stimuli. The leeches in both age groups responded in similar ways when only one stimulus was present. But when both waves and shadows existed, the adult leeches responded solely to the waves.

"We knew that there was a developmental switch in what kind of prey they go after," says Daniel Wagenaar, senior author of the paper and Broad Senior Research Fellow in Brain Circuitry at Caltech. "So when we saw a difference in the source of disturbances that the juveniles go after relative to the adults, we thought 'greatit's
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Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges
debwms@caltech.edu
626-395-3227
California Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert  

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