With Halloween just around the corner, I am going to indulge myself and write about the vampire bat. Although not found in Colorado, the myths and lore connected to this little creature are found everywhere.
As youngsters all over Durango painstakingly design their vampire costumes and bring home artwork from school depicting pumpkins, cats and bats, it’s good to know the real story behind the often-misunderstood vampire bat.
Vampires in modern Western culture were inspired by the Romanian prince, Vlad Dracul, also know as “Vlad the Impaler,” named after his favorite form of torture and execution. The folk legend goes that they had a distinctive survival adaptation of turning into a bat. Vampire bats, however, are not found in Romania but in subtropical and tropical America, from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. The similarities they share with their mythological counterpart are that they are nocturnal, feed on blood, and yes, kill about ten people every year.
Vampire bats are really rather tiny, about the size of a finger, with a wingspan of up to 8 inches. There are three species of vampire bats. Two are adapted to feed off of sleeping birds. The third will actually feed off of the blood of mammals.
Fear around this bat is based on the misconception that this species of vampire bat bites the neck of its victim. The truth is a little less glamorous. They are more likely to go for a big toe. They don’t actually suck the blood out of their victim but make a cut with their sharp teeth. Then a chemical in their saliva prevents the blood from clotting so that they can lick the blood for about a half an hour. Usually, they don’t drink more than a tablespoon and are then so engorged that they have to crawl away to digest their meal before taking flight.
Vampire bat bites become more prevalent as their rain forest habitat disappears and they are forced to visit farms for food. They are more likely to bite livestock, and only choose humans when livestock isn’t available and humans are accessible in their sleep. People that are killed by vampire bats do not die because of the amount of blood they take but because the bats may carry rabies. Sleeping indoors with the windows closed can almost always prevent tropical bites.
Here in Colorado, we can sleep to our hearts’ content with our windows open without the fear of a tiny vampire biting our toe. Bats are truly amazing, intelligent creatures and the only mammal that actually flies. They are the principal predator of night-flying insects, consuming thousands of tons annually.
We are lucky to have species such as the big brown bat, the little brown bat, the spotted bat, the red bat and several more, living in Colorado. All in all, there are over 900 species of bats in the world. Among mammals, only rodents have more species. Of this number, however, only one actually will feed off a human (in a dire emergency).
So, if your little one insists upon dressing as a bat for Halloween and saying, “I want to suck your blood,” you might influence the choice of Halloween costume by gently reminding them that they should actually say, “I want to bite your toe, lick a spoonful of blood and lay stuffed on the floor for a while.” It kind of takes the horror right out of it.
Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-9244.