April 8 - Up a hill, down a mountain.

Up well before dawn, we flew from Darwin to Cairns and immediately went West and South to the Atherton Tablelands. The Tablelands are a high plateau girdled on the East, North and South by thick tropical rainforest. A good deal of the plateau itself has long since been cleared of forest for grazing and cane fields. This proved to have unfortunate consequences a couple of weeks ago. Tropical Cyclone (i.e., hurricane) Larry hit the coast a week before we arrived in Australia as a category 5, moved inland and scored a hit on Atherton with 290 km/hr winds. The whole area is still littered with enormous piles of cleared branches, brush and overturned trees. Natural forest cover is a good buffer against hurricane force wind. Without the large rainforests to the East, Atherton would have fared far worse.

Tired though we were on arrival on the Tablelands, we were determined to get some collecting in. The only species known from this area is Amicobdella niger. We saw the holotype in Brisbane so we are pretty sure we'll know it when we see it. At the desk of the local information center. We inquired about nearby hiking trails and were told that there was one quite close going up Mount Baldy but, "I'm afraid there's loads of leeches there?" (In Queensland, even declarative sentences finish with a rising inflection. The effect being that it sounds like everyone is always asking questions and that all are entirely unsure of themselves). When we replied that, in fact, we were here for leeches, we were promptly instructed to feel free to go on up the mountain barefoot as someone had come back with more than 30 leech bites.

After donning our gear, off we went up Mount Baldy. Up. And up. And up. And on. And on. This was by far the toughest hike yet. Whoever cut the trail up the mountain had apparently not heard of the tactic of trying switchbacks to ease the rate of ascent. Rather, the trail simpy went striaght up the grade, over succesive humps, right to the top. Three-quarters of the way we could hear nothing but the sound of blood pumping through our ears so we found ourselves stopping periodically. Inasmuch as the tactic was designed to keep our hearts from exploding, ultimately it proved fruitful too. Right about that time was when the leeches crawled out on the trail and up our legs. Nice sized ones too! Jet black on the back with a faint light stripe down the middle (the "niger" in Amicobdella niger means "black"; we're guessing that the "Amico" in Amicobdella means "friendly", and friendly they were).

We only had a few moments to catch our breath at the summit when the clouds began to condense around us. If the treck up was strenuous, waiting too much longer and descending in the rain would be positively treacherous. We had been visited by more than a dozen leeches, and would surreptitiously retrive a few more on the way down without trying.

We're left, at the end of the night of preparing our catch, a little confused. The large leeches look very much like Amicobdella niger but the smaller collection seem less pigmented with repeating waves of black and a more ornate pattern. Could they be a second species? Are they just less-pigmented juveniles of Amicobdella niger? Can't say as yet. The genetic data we generate back in New York will be definitive. Still, we have hopes of a new species.