by Whit Gibbons

October 30, 2011

Q. One of the costumed characters running around my house getting ready for Halloween is Dracula, which has made me think about the Count's natural counterparts, vampire bats. Did vampire bats occur in the region known as Transylvania? Are vampire bats found in the United States? Have you yourself ever seen a vampire bat?

A. Along with ghosts, witches, and gun-slinging cowboys, Dracula is a traditional costume choice for trick-or-treaters. As everyone knows, the nocturnal Count Dracula bites his victims on the neck, extracting blood from them and, not coincidentally, turning them into vampires in the process. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel was modeled in part on tales dating back at least to the 1700s. Although vampire bats are not native to the Old World and were unknown to science until the early 1800s, early explorers to the American tropics undoubtedly encountered them and probably offered anecdotal accounts when they returned home.

Vampire bats, which occur from Mexico to South America, have been documented within 200 miles of the United States. They are the only blood-sucking mammals in the world, except of course for Count Dracula and others of his ilk. Like Dracula, vampire bats come out at night and have sharp teeth with which to pierce the flesh of their prey; a vampire bat's saliva has an anticoagulant that increases blood flow.

Any mammal in a vampire bat's vicinity is fair game, but the most common prey are now cows, horses, and humans. A bat lands as inconspicuously as possible on a sleeping animal and administers a bite that may actually go unnoticed by the victim. Taking a snooze outdoors in vampire bat territory could be hazardous to your health, especially if you have consumed too much alcohol, which could lead to a deep sleep. A concern for someone bitten by a vampire bat, aside from the disturbing idea that a blood-sucking mammal has invaded your personal space, is that some carry rabies.

My own experience with vampire bats occurred in Costa Rica as I walked through a banana plantation one night looking for frogs and snakes. As I scanned the ground and trees with my flashlight, turning over dead banana leaves with a snake stick, I had the sensation of being watched. My snake-hunting companion was several yards ahead, so I turned, expecting to see someone following me. A bat was hovering effortlessly three feet away, just about neck high. It made no sound and, more disturbingly, did not leave. It just kept flapping its little wings and staring at me. Or at my carotid artery. I did not see it lick its chops, or whatever it is hungry bats lick, but it was clearly looking at me. (I may have imagined that it was sizing me up and thinking just how tasty I would be.)

I had read "Dracula" and seen the movies, so I naturally assumed that the man in a black tuxedo had just turned into a bat and now planned to turn me into the living dead. Just kidding. Mostly. I knew that vampire bats were real and that concern for my welfare was no part of this bat's plan. So I took a swing at it with my snake stick. It flitted away, disappearing into the darkness. Did I hear it laugh at my feeble attempt to knock one out of the park?

I began walking again. When I looked back, it had returned. Presumably it was waiting for me to lie down and sleep so it could dine. Walking through a pitch-dark jungle can stir the imagination and mine was already plenty fertile. I caught up with my colleague and convinced him that no frogs or snakes were out that night so it was time to head back to camp.

Vampires, bats, witches, and ghosts are all part of the Halloween tradition. Because of global climate change, vampire bats may soon move into the United States, with Texas and Florida being the most likely candidates for places to settle. Now that's a scary thought.

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