Bloodsuckers Make the World Go Round

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The tooth-filled mouth of a lamprey. These bloodsucking fish have managed to survive for hundreds of millions of years. (T. Lawrence / Great Lakes Fishery Commission)

Why the World Needs Bloodsucking Creatures

by Brigit Katz/Smithsonian.com

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.

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