Interview with the Vampire Bat
So Much More Than a Halloween Mascot
Happy Halloween, friends! October 31 seemed like the perfect day to chat with/about the Common Vampire Bat, that misunderstood mammal of Central and South America.
Interview with the Vampire Bat
"I see," said the Common Vampire Bat, poking his head out of the tree hollow. The rest of his colony had already headed out for a night of feeding, but he was intrigued by this strange visitor with the strange request.
"It's for Bat Appreciation Week," said the newsletter writer, adjusting her headlamp to point down at her notepad.
"Lots of bats to choose from," said the vampire bat. "You're sure there's no other reason that you're here, right now?"
"I mean, it is Halloween..."
"And what better animal to celebrate on Halloween than the creepy little bloodsucker," said the bat, with an edge to his voice.
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't need to, it's right there in the name your kind gave us.Vampires."
The writer shifted uncomfortably. "I mean, you do drink blood though."
"Do you know what we don't do? Kill anyone. Other bats are out there slaughtering insects all night long, and you name us after the monsters. Do you even know about the Big-Eared Woolly Bat?"
"I don't, but wow, they sound adorable."
"They eat birds! And rodents! And lizards! And opossums! And other bats! But oh no, they don't drink blood, so they're only false vampire bats." The bat was getting worked up now. He dropped down to the ground and scampered across the forest floor to the writer's feet. She did her best to remain calm as he hopped up onto her jeans then clambered to her sleeve. She raised her arm so they were eye to eye.
"You humans," said the bat, "you take and you take and you take, until nothing is left. You even conjure up nightmare versions of yourselves that will drain each other dry in a pathetic attempt to live forever. We. Are. Not. Like. You. We take only as much as we need. We do it subtly, without creating terror or trauma. And every creature we feed on gets to live another day." The bat tilted his head and took a few small sniffs of the air. "You're Canadian, right?"
"How, how did you know?" asked the writer.
"Your plaid flannel shirt smells like maple syrup. Have you ever seen how they tap a maple tree?" asked the bat.
"Does a lynx have snowshoes?" scoffed the writer, before she realized how that sounded and muttered a quiet "yes."
"It's practically the same thing. Trees can easily cope with losing a little sap, they just make more. Blood's the same way. So we make a little hole, lap up a little of the sweet stuff, no harm, no foul. Now, will that do for this newsletter of yours?"
"Of course, of course. I don't want to keep you from your hunting, erm, feeding, erm, from tapping a tapir?"
"If I miss a meal one of the other bats will regurgitate some blood to keep me going, but that's not something we like to ask of each other often."
"Gross. Uh, I mean, how nice. That you take care of each other like that."
"Hurry home," said the bat as he launched off into the night.
"Hey, how do you know about maple syrup?" the writer called after him.
"Happy Halloween!" the bat called in reply.
The writer looked down at the scribbles she had made on her notepad, which seemed to glow in the small pool of light.
"Happy Bat Appreciation Week," she said quietly, suddenly craving pancakes.
~ Marilyn Anne Campbell
Common, But Hardly Ordinary
There are three species of bats who feed exclusively on blood, though the most commonly talked about are the Common Vampire Bats (Desmodus rotundus).
Common Vampire Bats prefer to feed on large mammals and will only take about a tablespoon of blood at each meal. They often make their move when the animal is deep asleep or otherwise distracted, landing on the animal's back or running along the ground to approach from below. They can sense the heat created by blood vessels close to the surface of the skin, and once they've chosen their spot they use one set of teeth to clip away fur, and another super-sharp set to cut a small, painless slit. Then they use their tongue and their channel-shaped lower lip to drink the blood, which is kept flowing by an anticoagulant in their saliva. Ideally, the animal they are feeding from remains undisturbed and the bat's meal ends with the host literally having no idea what they're missing.
The no-harm, no-foul arguments of our “interviewee” aside, it is true that Common Vampire Bats can sometimes unintentionally cause problems for mammals they feed on if the wound they create becomes infected or in the rare cases when the bats are carrying rabies. Many farmers in South and Central America (which is where all three species of vampire bats live) consider the bats pests due to their love of feeding on livestock. But the vampire bats’ reputation as terrifying creatures of the night seems pretty overblown when you compare what little damage they generally do compared to any true predator/prey relationship.
Common Vampire Bats live together in colonies and really do feed each other when one of them misses a meal. But they also keep track of who offered them food when they needed it, and they are more likely to lend support to a previously altruistic colony-mate over a selfish one. And that awareness of social dynamics isn't the only way the bats display their intelligence; during feeding time the bats in a colony spread the blood loss around, with it being rare for two bats to feed on the same mammal in the same night. Like the sustainably-minded Steephead Parrotfish, the vampire bats seem to understand what is needed to conserve their resources for the future.
So while their menu choices may seem like the stuff of horror legends, real live Common Vampire Bats are clever, sociable creatures with amazing adaptations. Happy Bat Week indeed.
Let’s Chat Bats
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For a nice overview read PBS Newshour’s 7 Things You Didn't Know About Vampire Bats
In 2019 the Royal Ontario Museum created a special exhibit Bloodsuckers: Legend to Leeches. Read about vampire bats and the stories they have been intertwined with in the ROM article Living Vampires
For a more in-depth look at all three vampire bat species and the differences between them, read the multi-page Natural History Magazine article The Curious, Bloody Lives of Vampire Bats, excerpted and adapted from the book Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures by Bill Schutt
Common Vampire Bats are much better at moving along the ground than other bat species. Check out this super-short YouTube clip of a vampire bat on a treadmill
Many of the other YouTube videos about vampire bats feature ominous music and melodramatic narration. Luckily SciShow has things more sensibly covered with Bloody Amazing Facts About Vampire Bats:
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