Happy (early) Halloween! To continue with my series on bats, today we'll be talking about the sociology and biology of the spookiest bat of all - the vampire bat. A Victorian-era illustration of a vampire bat head.
Part of the reason bats are so associated with Halloween is because the Victorian English public became aware of many varieties of bat with nose and ear fringes at the same time as Halloween was gaining popularity. Ernst Haeckel's drawings of many varieties of South American
While we now know that these features are primarily used to channel sound for echolocation, Victorian European naturalists were frightened by these features and believed they indicated bloodsucking tendencies. A photo of the face of an Antillean Ghost-Faced Bat, with ve
The Victorian public became enthralled with stories from "exotic" South America. Stories of naturalists, adventurers, and bats, especially vampire bats. Engraving image from 1869 with an image of a flying bat, the
The Victorian obsession with vampire bats became such that it became fashionable for women to wear bat costumes for Halloween! An illustration of a woman wearing a dress, devil horns and An antique photograph of a woman in a gown, wearing a hat wiAn illustration of a woman wearing a gown, with black glovesAn illustration of a woman in a red dress with a long dress
Vampire myths had existed in European cultures for generations, but originally, vampire myths had nothing whatsoever to do with bats. Upon hearing about bloodsucking bats in far-off lands, Bram Stoker included the ability to transform into a bat in his Dracula (1897). An illustrated cover of Bram Stoker's Dracula, showing a cas
Dracula lore, in both the novel and the early film, was incredibly popular, and this depiction connected bats and vampires solidly in Western Mythos - lending bats their official spooky status. A photo of the titular vampire Dracula from the original mov
But what of the reality of these bloodsucking bats? How much has popular lore obfuscated the actual traits of these living bats?
These bats live over most of Central and South America. A map showing the range of the vampire bat, from the Southwe
Firstly, there is not one species of vampire bat, but actually three; the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi), and the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata).
CW for blood A photo of a common vampire bat, perched and facing the came
Even the ability they're most known for - bloodsucking - isn't exactly true to life. They don't actually suck blood, like mosquitos do, but rather they *lick* it. Their saliva contains anti-coagulant compounds that allow blood to keep flowing - and bats to keep licking. A close-up image of a vampire bat licking blood from a small
This compound is appropriately titled Draculin and is currently being investigated as a basis for possible blood-thinning medication. The chemical formula of Draculin.
Rather than being terrifying bloodsuckers, vampire bats actually prefer to avoid alerting their prey to their presence if at all possible. They mostly feed when prey is asleep, their saliva contains painkillers, and they only take about a tablespoon of blood. A photo of two white-winged vampire bats feeding on a chicke
While vampire bats will feed on humans (you should get a rabies shot if you find you've been preyed upon) if they are available, they generally avoid humans and prefer instead to feed on livestock or wildlife. A photo of a vampire bat feeding on a pig, perched on its ba
Vampire bats are aided in finding their prey by their ability to sense body heat. They have infrared receptors in their highly sensitive noses that assist them in not only finding prey - but finding where blood flows close to the skin. An infrared camera image of a common pig.
Vampire bats are also the only bats who have re-evolved the ability to run. While other bats can only shuffle along awkwardly on their wrists and feet, vampire bats have long legs that allow them to run over the ground with a sort of hopping motion.
Blood as a food source is particularly nutritionally-poor, and vampire bats can starve to death if they miss as few as two meals. Contrary to their spooky reputation, vampire bats are actually at the center of research related to animal altruism. To survive, bats share food. Two vampire bats roosting together.
Successful vampire bats will share food with those who did not manage to have a successful hunt - allowing the colony as a whole to survive. Even more so, vampire bats have some of the most nuanced and complex social relationships among animals - all based on rituals of sharing. An illustration showing a mother vampire bat feeding her off
As Gerald Carter, vampire bat specialist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, says, "Individuals that you fed in the past will come back and feed you in the future, so the bats have a social safety net that they can rely on when they have failed to get food."
This social food-sharing is exceptionally rare in nature, where most animals operate in competition for food with other individuals of their species. Through this food sharing behavior, vampire bats create incredibly complex social networks and whole societies. A photo of a vampire bat in flight.
Not only do bats remember those who shared with them in the past - they remember those that refuse to share, and ostracize them. Adult males will also share blood meals with females and their offspring to garner favor for future mating opportunities. A photo of a mother vampire bat sharing blood with her offsp
Rather than being frightening, these bloodthirsty little bats are cooperative, highly social, and overall, fascinating. If you are further interested in bats, you can learn more in my previous bat threads, here:
What bat would y'all like me to do next?
As always, doing scicomm like this is part of my job! If you enjoyed this thread and think I've earned it, please consider leaving a tip at my venmo, @AlexPetrovnia!
You can also support me by checking out my etsy shop, where I sell handmade masks, plants, pins and more! For the month of October, absolutely everything in-store is 50% off!

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Today is #NationalComingOutDay, and I've been waiting all year to discuss some thoughts. I hate National Coming Out Day. 🧵
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Happy Early Halloween! 👻 Earlier this week, we talked about the diversity, social context, and adaptations of bats! For today's science thread, I'd like to zoom in on one particular species and one particular threat to that species. If you live in North America, listen up! 🧵🦇
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Allies; you are failing us.
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