Day Five of #SpookyScience: What’s the Deal With Vampire Bats?
We’ve made it to Day 5 of #SpookyScience! Thank you for reading along with us this week as we’ve talked about all things scary – goosebumps, screams, and fear galore. To finish off our week of fun, we’re looking at something that’s cute, creepy, and misunderstood: vampire bats.
In general, bats have a bad reputation. They’re widely considered to be scary, and as such, they’re always associated with Halloween. But even though there are over 1,000 species of bats, one kind is always considered the creepiest of them all: vampire bats.
Vampires have inspired countless spooky tales since the 17th century, and have recently manifested themselves in different variations from the classic stories of Ann Rice – Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries are just a few examples of modernized versions that lack some of the “spook factor” in favor of romance. Regardless, whether you ask a seasoned horror expert or a pop culture-crazed teenager, most people will agree that a vampire is not something you’d want to run into.
The good news is that vampires are not real, and that there’s no fear of Count Dracula sneaking into your window at night. But there are countless animal species that have fangs and a thirst for blood, and the vampire bat is one of them.
The vampire bat calls Mexico, Central America and South America home. It is considered a “microbat” due to its size – only weighing about two ounces! Vampire bats are well-known for spending large amounts of time grooming each other, and maintain strong social bonds within their communities. The vampire bat is also the poster child for reciprocal food sharing; instead of each bat obtaining its own food and fending for itself, bats take turns going out and getting food, which they then regurgitate to share with their colony. Because vampire bats can only live without food for three days at a time, this system reduces the amount of individual effort for hunting, allows for more energy conservation, and increases the likelihood of finding meals. In fact, vampire bats are the only species of bats that practice reciprocal food sharing.
So far, vampire bats sound like lovely creatures. They’re small and adorable, groom their friends, and happily share their food (something most humans won’t even do!) Why is it that they have such a bad reputation for being creepy?
Vampire Bats: Friend or Foe?
We largely have pop-culture to thank for that. Bats and vampires were first widely linked in Bram Soker’s novel Dracula, the first vampire story to be mass printed in 1897. Because of this mythology, bats have largely been associated with things that go bump in the night (although their nocturnal tendencies and cave habitats don’t help their case).
Vampire bats, then, have an even stronger association with mythological creatures because of their food of choice: blood. These bats sustain themselves entirely on blood, a dietary trait known as hematophagy. They normally feed on sleeping animals, and therefore hunt exclusively when it is fully dark. But considering that vampire bats are so small in size, their feeds definitely don’t result in exsanguination of their hosts – in fact, they can only consume about one fluid ounce of blood at once.
While this might be enough to make you feel creeped out, it’s important to remember that vampire bats are far from the only animals that are hematophagous. In fact, there are over fourteen thousand living animal species that consume blood – mosquitoes, bed bugs, and sharp-beaked ground finches are just a few examples. And vampire bats are preyed upon by blood-sucking parasites themselves!
People often assume that vampire bats are a hazard to humans because of their parasitic nature. While it’s true that vampire bats have been known to bite humans, the blood loss is far too minimal to be of any major risk. Of course, as with any animal bite, there is a possibility for rabies; however, only around 0.5% of bats carry rabies, and those that do often become so clumsy and disoriented that they are unable to fly and therefore pose little threat.
In fact, bats contribute far more positive things to human health than they do harmful effects. The general bat population consumes a massive amount of bugs and assist in plant pollination, which is vital to farmers and the agriculture industry. Bats are also the longest living mammals for their size, sometimes living to be over 40 years old! Because of this, there are possibility anti-aging discoveries that can be made from studying bats.
And let’s not forget about our new little friend – scientists believe that the vampire bat specifically can contribute a great deal to the science of human health. Vampire bat saliva greatly aids their feeding process, as it contains anticoagulants that prevents wound clotting, thus keeping blood flowing longer from their hosts so that they can feed thoroughly. These anti-clotting enzymes are currently being studied for their therapeutic benefits in stroke patients.
Change Your Perspective and #SaveTheBats
Now that we know more about vampire bats and their lifestyles, they aren’t as scary as they are often made out to be. Despite all of their benefits, bats are not well-protected – in fact, 86% of all bat species are at risk for extinction, due to factors like hunting and the white-nose syndrome epidemic. When this is combined with bats’ low reproductive behaviors (only producing one pup annually), conservation efforts are crucial. Check out the #SaveTheBats campaign to find out how to help preserve bat colonies.
Vampire bats are not manifestations of Dracula, they provide countless benefits, and they’re also adorable – and in danger of extinction. And given their minimal risk to humans, there’s no reason to be scared to death of them. On Halloween, don’t be afraid to try and change someone’s perspective on bats!