When someone mentions the phrase ‘Vampire Bats’, images of Dracula and shrieking human victims might come to mind. Vampire Bats have been an especially spooky element in storytelling and modern culture for decades. What makes Vampire Bats even more intriguing is the fact that they actually exist.
So, what are these bloodthirsty animals all about, anyway? Where do they come from? How exactly do they go about feeding? In this article, we’ll be answering these questions and more, as we take a closer look at these hematophagous flying mammals.
Vampire Bat Basics
Vampire bats are a kind of leaf-nosed bat found throughout North, Central, and South America. The scientific name for this member of the Desmodontinae subfamily of bats is Desmodus rotundus, and there’s more than just their penchant for blood that makes these bats especially notable.
The common Vampire Bat is much smaller than common lore might suggest.
Vampire Bat Size
- Weight: Up to 2 ounces
- Body Length: About 3.5 inches
- Wingspan: About 7 inches
These little fliers only weigh two ounces when fully grown, and their length from nose to tail is only about 3.5 inches (reference). Vampire bats are the only known bat species that dines exclusively on blood, technically classifying it as a hematophagous hunter (‘hema’ meaning ‘blood’, and ‘phagous’ meaning ‘eating’). Other hematophagous animals include ticks, mosquitoes and lampreys.
Do Vampire Bats ‘suck’ blood?
Contrary to popular belief, Vampire Bats do not suck blood from their prey. Instead, this bat uses specially developed incisor and canine teeth to make a small cut in the skin of their prey—often while the prey is asleep. Then, the bat waits for the blood to spill out and begin to pool, at which time the bat will then ‘lap up’ the blood until it is satisfied.
Now, you might be thinking: why doesn’t the animal being bitten by the Vampire Bat wake up or notice that they’ve been bitten? After all, it takes quite a bite to draw enough blood to actually form a pool that the bat can sip from. Interestingly, Vampire Bats have an enzyme contained in their saliva that acts as a kind of painkiller. So, by the time the cut has been made, the saliva in the bat’s mouth has already started anesthetizing the area, helping to ensure that the bat can enjoy its meal of fresh blood without awakening its victim.
[Fun Fact: Vampire Bats are equipped with thermosensitive nerves located near the surface of the skin on their faces. These nerves are able to detect very small heat fluctuations—fluctuations the bat can use to precisely locate veins on its victims.]
Run, Vampire Bat, Run!
Vampire Bats are able to run along the ground and even swim, if needed, all thanks to a pair of comparatively strong forelimbs. These forelimbs have claws, too, which aid the Vampire Bat as it crawls around and on top of the slumbering animal it wants to feed on.
If they are motivated enough, Vampire Bats can break into an all-out gallop, reaching speeds as fast as 4.5 miles-per-hour. That’s fast enough to catch a human walking at a brisk pace! What makes this trait of the Vampire Bat all the more fascinating is that ground-based locomotion used to be a characteristic of many bat species very early on in their evolutionary timeline.
However, the ability to walk and run was lost by almost all bats, with the Vampire Bat sort of ‘redeveloping’ it over time.
Vampire Bat Identifying Features
What do Vampire Bats look like, more specifically?
As we’ve already stated, their size can be said to be quite small, but what do their bodies, wings and faces look like? As with many other bat species, the bodies of Vampire Bats are covered with a layer of fur. This fur can range from golden in color to reddish brown or dark grey. Two of the most prominent identifying characteristics of the Vampire Bat are it’s ears and uniquely shaped nose.
Here is an “Up Close and Personal” look at these bats from the Smithsonian:
Vampire Bat ears are broad, short, and flat, and they’re small, beady eyes are positioned just behind the corners of their mouths. Speaking of mouths—a Vampire Bat with its mouth open will almost certainly reveal those flesh-tearing teeth we mentioned above!
The wingspan of a Vampire Bat can reach as much as seven inches, or roughly twice its body length. The special membrane that stretches along its forelimbs is responsible for the lightweight and highly efficient operation of the wings of the Vampire Bat, wings that are covered with a special kind of skin cell known as Merkel Cells.
An Insatiable Hunter
If you’re familiar at all with vampire lore, you know that Vampires cannot go very long without feeding—and if they do, they’ll perish. There happens to be a kernel of truth in this myth, at least when it comes to Vampire Bats.
Vampire Bats are such insatiable bloodthirsters that they require daily feedings simply to survive. In fact, if a Vampire Bat misses more than a single day’s meal, it will die. Granting this, it’s not a stretch to see why vampires of myth and legend were always described as being forever hungry for their fix of blood.
Even though a lot of misinformation has been associated with Vampire Bats, they remind us of just how social, intelligent, and highly evolved these flying mammals can be. They just want to enjoy a nice meal—albeit of fresh blood—and live out their lives in peace.
And, they don’t need a cape or a coffin to do it!