Scanning behavior in the medicinal leech Hirudo verbana

Cynthia M. Harley, Daniel A. Wagenaar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


While moving through their environment, medicinal leeches stop periodically and wave their head or body back and forth. This activity has been previously described as two separate behaviors: one called 'head movement' and another called 'body waving'. Here, we report that these behaviors exist on a continuum, and provide a detailed description of what we now call 'scanning'. Scanning-related behavior has been thought to be involved in orientation; its function has never before been assessed. While previous studies suggested an involvement of scanning in social behavior, or sucker placement, our behavioral studies indicate that scanning is involved in orienting the leech towards prey stimuli. When such stimuli are present, scanning behavior is used to re-orient the leech in the direction of a prey-like stimulus. Scanning, however, occurs whether or not prey is present, but in the presence of prey-like stimuli scanning becomes localized to the stimulus origin. Most likely, this behavior helps the leech to gain a more detailed picture of its prey target. The display of scanning, regardless of the presence or absence of prey stimuli, is suggestive of a behavior that is part of an internally driven motor program, which is not released by the presence of sensory stimuli. The data herein include first steps to understanding the neural mechanisms underlying this important behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere86120
JournalPloS one
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 21 2014


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