IS A TIME FOR SCARY THOUGHTS
October 30, 2011
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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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