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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Water Cooler: Vampires, bats and the actual facts

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 6, 2020

A vampire bat is caught in a net in Aracy, in the northeast Amazon state of Para, Brazil, in 2005.  (MARIO QUADROS)
A vampire bat is caught in a net in Aracy, in the northeast Amazon state of Para, Brazil, in 2005. (MARIO QUADROS)

The Halloween season features all sorts of animals and the spooky tales involving them. Once you start to learn a bit more about these animals and where their Halloween legends came from, they might not seem so scary after all. Bats are one of the most popular animals of Halloween stories and have possibly received the worst rap of all because of their association with vampire folklore.

The most legendary of bats when it comes to Halloween lore is the common vampire bat. The vampire bat lives for about nine years when in the wild and weighs in at about 2 ounces although that can double after one feeding. Their wingspan is 7 inches and their body is on average 3.5 inches long, making them much smaller than most bats portrayed in vampire stories.

Of all the bat species, the vampire bat is the only one that feeds entirely on the blood of mammals, which is why it was given its name by Europeans. These bats don’t have very many teeth, but the ones they do have are razor sharp to facilitate hunting and feeding on prey.

They actually strike at their victims from the ground and approach while walking on all fours. Using a heat sensor on its nose, the bat is able to find a blood vessel flowing with warm blood just beneath its prey’s skin, making it easy to puncture. Its teeth can even be used like a barber’s blade to shave away hair that might be in the way of feeding. Once it bites the animal, it doesn’t suck blood but instead laps up the flowing blood with its tongue.

Normally a wound of this size would not produce very much blood, but the saliva of vampire bats contains several compounds that promote a steady flow of blood. This includes an anticoagulant to counter the body’s natural clotting defenses. Other compounds prevent veins near the wound from constricting. Funny enough, the anticoagulant in the vampire bat’s saliva is named Draculin and is being studied as a treatment for strokes and heart attacks. The diminutive vampire bat can consume more than an ounce of blood in 20 minutes and their rapid digesting enables them to take flight soon after eating.

The bite of a vampire bat is not usually harmful to a person, although they have been known to feed on humans. However, their prey of choice is usually livestock and birds. An attack leaves the trademark, two-prong bite on a victim’s skin that has become a part of mainstream vampire lore. Although rare, it is possible for bats to spread rabies to humans and livestock. Only a small percentage of bats carry rabies, and those that do are often disoriented and unable to fly and normally die from the disease.

Young vampire bats actually feed not on blood, but milk for at least the first three months of their lives. They can even cling on to their mothers during flight. Now that’s efficiency.

The common vampire bat is found in the tropics of South America, Mexico and Central America. Vampire bats only recently became part of vampire folklore after Europeans came across them after arriving in South America. The term vampire bat was not used in zoology until 1774 as recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Vampires were recorded as having shape-shifting abilities in European folklore but Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is what helped popularize the attribute of vampires turning into bats.

Folklore of other cultures outside of Europe have stories about bats. Native American lore such as stories from the Creek, Cherokee and Apache, identify the bat as a trickster. The Aztecs created mythology that associated bats with the land of the dead, decay and destruction. However, Chinese folklore associates bats with joy, happiness and good fortune.

Bats are the only mammal that can fly and come in more than 1,400 species. Most bats are either insectivores, feeding on insects, or frugivores, feeding on fruit. Some are nectarivores and feed only on nectar. Only a few bat species feed on animals other than insects. They contribute to the ecosystem by eating pests, pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds.

Humans have little reason to fear these fascinating creatures and their poor reputation is a prime example of how influential myths and stories are. Why not use Halloween as a time to let these cool creatures shine?

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