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    Sean Daily is an English major from New Jersey now living in Las Vegas, the Other City of Lights. "I consider 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' to be comfort reading, I like the al pastor tacos at Tacos Mexico and I count among my literary influences the Chainsaw from 'Doom'. 'RRRRRR! You don't like that, do you, Mr. Undead Marine! RRRRRR!'"

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10-31-08 Vampire Bats

Posted by Sean on November 1, 2008

Shanoah can tell you this: I’ve got a thing for bats. I love ’em. Some people are attracted to the mighty eagle or the noble lion. I’m attracted to little bats, which Stephen King described in Graveyard Shift as “rats with wings”. (That right there should tell you something about me)

Anyway, it’s Hallowe’en (or it was when I started writing this), which means that, if I’m posting about bats, I must be posting about vampire bats.

Bats have a decidely mixed reputation in human culture. Leviticus 11:19 lists them as one of the “unclean” animals that the Israelites were forbidden to eat or even touch. This list is long, however, and includes shellfish, rabbits, pigs and numerous other kinds of “birds” [1]. According to Gary F. McCracken’s Bats in Magic, Potions, and Medicinal Preparations, bats have been associated with “witchcraft” – and I mean Satanism and diabolism here, not Wicca – since at least 1332, when “Lady Jacaume of Bayonne in France was publicly burned because ‘crowds of bats’ were seen about her house and garden.” Shakespeare had his three witches in Macbeth adding “wool of bat” to their hellbroth and, in The Tempest, Caliban’s curse in Act I, Scene 2 on his master Prospero includes the line “All the charms of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!”

Once you get away from the Judeo-Christian paradigm, though, things improve markedly for bats. McCracken lists many beneficial magical uses for bats (which, unfortunately, require the animal’s death and dismemberment) among such diverse cultures as Romani, Egyptians, ancient Romans and Germans. The words for “bat” and “luck” – “fu” – sound the same in at least one of the Chinese dialects and are therefore a symbol of luck. And Cubans apparently believed the same thing. It’s one of the reasons why Bacardi rum, originally a Cuban rum, has a bat on the label – because some fruit bats were found roosting in the distillery. (There’s another story, and one that I prefer, on the connection between Bacardi and bats – because bats kept flying into the distillery at night, and workers were continually fishing the extremely happy and thoroughly snockered animals out of the vats)

But then, most of those associations are non-Christian. And since Christians run (or ran) the world…

The main reason for the connection between Hallowe’en and bats is of course Bram Stoker’s Draculathe book that launched a thousand goths and which, honestly, I’ve only been able to plow two-thirds of the way through before giving up. Victorian writing diarrhea does that to me. But I was able to stick with it long enough to reach this rather chilling description by Professor Van Helsing:

“…Can you tell me why in the Pampas, ay and elsewhere, there are bats that come out at night and open the veins of cattle and horses and suck dry their veins, how in some islands of the Western seas there are bats which hang on the trees all day, and those who have seen describe as like giant nuts or pods, and that when the sailors sleep on the deck, because that it is hot, flit down on them and then, and then in the morning are found dead men, white as even Miss Lucy was?”

Bram Stoker was many things. A biologist he was not.

Stoker got the idea for having the count and other vampires turn into bats (among many other things, including mist and dogs) from stories of blood-drinking bats from South and Central America. That’s about the only part of the above paragraph that even remotely approaches the truth.

There are between 900 to 1,100 species of bats in the world (I’ve seen different figures). Of these, only three eat blood, and only one of these – Desmondus rotundasor the common vampire bat – feeds on the blood of mammals. The other two – Diaemus youngii and Diphylla ecaudata – feed on the blood of birds but are poorly understood otherwise. The rest subsist on fruit and insects, with a few that prey on lizards, birds and even other bats.

Furthermore, vampire bats are only found in the Americas, with Desmondus ranging from Mexico to Argentina and Chile (and possibly into the Southwestern United States, though I’ve seen only one or two articles that state that). In other words, the link between bats and vampires is incredibly recent – only 111 years old, since Dracula was first published in 1897.

The common vampire bat actually shares a lot of personality traits with humans – or at least personality traits for which we like to take credit.

For one thing, they will practice reciprocal altruism. A starving bat can beg for food – regurgitated blood – from another bat, with the understanding that the favor will be returned. Female vampire bats will also adopt orphaned baby vampire bats – in other words, babies that aren’t their children and share none of their genetic traits. I know of no other animal, besides humans, that does this, and it seems (to me, at least) fly right in the face of accepted theories of evolution – that an individual’s sole purpose is to perpetuate his genes into the future.

Humans really only have to worry about being attacked by one species of bat, and that’s the common vampire bat. Now, it’s true that vampire bats will attack cattle and livestock and that these attacks appear to be rising. I’ve also seen news stories (usually with emotionally-charged words in the headlines like “rabid” and “attack”) of humans dying of rabies after being bitten by vampire bats. Most tellingly, The New York Times reported in August that Warao Indians were dying of a mystery disease, possibly from rabies transmitted by bat bites – 38 over an unspecified period, including 16 in June.

However, let’s look at these attacks a bit more closely.

The common vampire bat weighs 2 ounces and has a wingspan of 7 inches. By comparison, humans typically weigh between 130-200 pounds, and cattle (the  livestock that common vampire bats usually feed upon) weigh an average of 950 to 1,150 pounds. In other words, you really can’t call a bat bite an “attack”, or at least not in the traditional flashing-fang-and-claw fight-to-the-death definition of the word.

Vampire bats instead have to sneak up on their targets (and hope they’re not detected and stomped flat). They then use heat sensors on their noses to locate a blood vessel near the skin. Vampire bats do not have fangs. Instead, they have sharp fangs that they use to cut a small incision in their target’s skin. They then lap up the blood that flows out.

A typical meal for one vampire bat is two teaspoons of blood. In other words, it is highly unlikely that you’re going to die of blood loss from a vampire bat attack. Instead, deaths from bat bites are from disease, not blood loss. 

Vampire bat bites are like any other animal bite: they’re a possible transmitter of disease. The sole exception is that a bat bite doesn’t do as much damage as, say, a dog bite. And deaths from rabies, at least in the United States, are far outstripped by deaths from other diseases. Furthermore, rabies usually doesn’t make bats more aggressive; it paralyzes them.

In other words, if you see a bat just lying on the ground, for God’s sakes don’t go near it. And if you are bitten by any animal, get rabies and tetanus shots pronto, before the symptoms manifest.

Now, let’s look at why vampire bats attack people and animals are being attacked. A look at the map offers a quick answer.

These attacks are happening in areas of heavy deforestation and habitat destruction. Vampire bats used to feed on tapirs, peccaries and other wild animals. But these animals had their habitats destroyed and their numbers reduced. So vampire bats swtiched targets. These big bipedal creatures were replacing the bats’ more accustomed prey, and they were bringing with them cattle that must have looked like Wal-Mart Superstores to the vampire bats. No wonder the bats switched targets. Wouldn’t you?

Keep in mind, too, that there is only one species of bat that consciously attacks humans and their livestock- around one-tenth of 1% of all bat species – and that, given the thousands of vampire bats that exist, attacks on humans are rare.

[1] Yes, Leviticus lists bats as a type of bird, when they’re really mammals. Bats have fur instead of feathers and they bear live young, which they suckle and nurture, instead of laying eggs. In other words, they’re not birds. This is further proof that you should take the Bible – any version of the Bible – and especially Leviticus, with a big grain of salt. But I digress.

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One Response to “10-31-08 Vampire Bats”

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