Vampire Bats: Before and After Bela Lugosi by Marjorie Dorfman
Because of the immortal power of celluloid, most of us think of Bela Lugosi and his portrayal of Count Dracula whenever the name of the vampire bat arises. Through the chilling mist of legend, however, these creatures share a long and noble history, one greatly ignored by most of who have trouble making friends with these strange looking creatures. (We probably look even stranger to them) Here is their story, as bloody and honestly as it can be told.
I have never met a vampire personally, but I don't know what might happen tomorrow. ~ Bela Lugosi
The Vampire Bat in Early Mythology
Vampire bats did not appear in early European legends surrounding vampires probably because the bat did not occur in that region of the world. It is known that some old Gypsy folklore involved the bones of vampire bats but it was not in a negative sense. They were carried in a small bag and considered symbols of good luck (not for the bat). Folklore concerning this odd creature abounds in Central and South America where legends whisper of filthy creatures that feed on human blood or have supernatural powers which allow them to transform from man to bat. (Enter Bram Stoker and good old Bela Lugosi.)
While the legend sounds about as far-fetched as a tall tale can get, there is some recorded evidence of human hosts. Glover Allen in 1939 wrote about bats feeding on humans. In his own words:
"While traveling down the Amazon valley, he (a Dr. William Farabee) awoke one morning to find that a vampire during the night had gouged a small piece of skin from the tip of his nose and had evidently feasted while he slept, for the wound was still bleeding slightly."
About blood-letting as well, not all the tales that have come down through history are negative and some relate to healing qualities. Consider the story of the Mexican monk who was struck with a sudden fever and expected to die within hours. The next day he seemed much better and Allen once again reports:
"It seems that his feet had been left uncovered and that during the night, a vampire bat had entered the room, which, having bitten his toe and lapped his blood, had so reduced the fever that the sick man recovered."
The Vampire Bat in Todays World
Today the vampire bat suffers from a bad reputation. Symbolic of attitudes borne because of misunderstandings and ignorance, they are regarded as creepy, blood-sucking creatures and are considered true icons of Halloween complete with blood dripping from their fangs. Not helping this image is the world of cinema were a recent, film, Bats, to be explict, depicted a colony of screaming homicidal bats in a small town in Texas attacking a car containing innocent, screaming, pre-pubescent victims.
One very real problem even more terrifying than any image a horror film could conjure, is the fact that vampire bats are commonly infected with rabies. This deadly virus is responsible for the deaths of thousands of farm animals each year in the tropical regions of the world. Many humans die from their bites as well, especially if they go untreated.
Different Types of Bats
The three vampire bat species include: Desmondus rotundus, the hairy vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata) and the White-winged Vampire Bat (Diaemus youngi). All three are indigenous to the Americas, ranging from Mexico to Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Vampire bats differ from fruit eating bats in more ways than their dietary preferences. For bats whose food source is blood, this dietary trait is known as hematophagy. The vampire bat is known for its short, conical muzzle and its nose is equipped with specialized infrared sensors, which aid the animal in locating areas where the blood flows close to the skin of its prey. (Cole Porters, Ive Got You Under My Skin now doesnt seem such a romantic song, does it?) Vampire bats have small ears and a short tail membrane. Their front teeth are used for cutting and the back ones are much smaller than is the case with other types of bats. Of all the bat species, only vampire bat is able to maneuver on the ground as well as in the air.
The saliva of a vampire bat contains a substance called draculin (close, I know, but no cigar) which prevents the preys blood from clotting. It is a misconception that vampire bats suck blood; they actually lap it up at the site of the haemorrhage. There is a part of the bats brain that processes sound and is well adapted to detecting the regular breathing patterns of sleeping animals that serve as their main source of food.
Feeding and Hunting Habits
Vampire bats require about two tablespoons of blood per day. They hunt only at night and feed mostly on the blood of animals such as pigs, horses and cows, while the hairy-legged and white-winged varieties feed on the blood of birds. Bats use their infrared sensors to locate a suitable place to bite. They then make a small incision and lap up the blood. Since they do not chew their food, they have fewer teeth than other types of bats. They generally approach their prey from the ground.
Vampire Bat Habitats
Vampire bats tend to live in colonies that can range in number from a few to thousands, and they often roost with other bat species. They thrive in very dark surroundings, such as caves, hollow trees, old wells and abandoned buildings. Usually, bats have only one offspring per breeding season and each colony typically has just one reproducing male (very busy fellow). Each bat needs a blood meal at least once every few days and it may need help from others in the colony if it fails to get adequate food during foraging. Another bat may permit a food exchange in a mouth-to-mouth ritual that resembles kissing. (The next time you pucker up, try not to think about this.)
The Vampire Bat and the Spread of Disease
Although the vampire bat presents a serious health problem in that it is a carrier of the deadly rabies virus, modern medicine has discovered some positive use for the unique properties found in the animals saliva. A study, the results of which appeared in an issue of Stroke Magazine: Journal of the American Heart Association a few years back, tested a genetically-engineered drug called desmoteplase, which utilizes the anti-coagulant properties of the bats saliva and was shown to increase the blood flow in stroke patients.
Although we may never feel about bats the same way Will Rogers felt about mankind (that is, he never met a man he didnt like, or at least so he said), there is hope for a kind of distant acceptance and understanding. It cannot be mutual as bats are and always will be more afraid of us than we are of them. Its unlikely that humans will ever warm up to bats as lovable playthings for they are not. Still they are worthy of some respect as one of Gods creatures who have evolved and survived eons of misunderstanding and fear.
The author introduces young readers to the complicated and fascinating world of bats. Whether they're darting across the evening sky in search of their breakfast or hanging from their upside-down roosts in caves, old mines, buildings, and trees, bats play a crucial role in the natural world but are all too often misunderstood by people who think of them as strange birds, flying rats, or Dracula in disguise. Taschek also includes information on what to do if a bat gets in your house, building bat houses, and how to imitate bat "talk."