Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Vampires Are Everywhere

A cartoon Dracula peeking around a corner and waving hello.
We humans have an interesting relationship with vampires. On the one hand, we have created a whole genre of creatures to horrify, titillate and entertain ourselves. We like the ├╝ber creepy Nosferatu type vampire, and we like sexy dreamer Twilight type vampires. We like them all. But, while we may like fictional vampires, we revile the animal most closely associated with vampires - vampire bats. For as much as we love fake vampires, it seems people just don’t like to think about real-life vampires. Nevertheless, we are surrounded by them on a daily basis.  

Most of the common insects that plague people are bloodsuckers. There are mosquitoes, bed bugs, various flies and fleas, ticks and leeches. And I probably missed a few. These insects represent a staggering disease toll taken on the human population. For instance, mosquitoes continue kill more people than any other animal and fleas helped spread the Black Death that tried to wipe out Europe in the mid-1300s. Not all blood-feeding insects are dangerous to humans, but the ones that are a threat are super dangerous to humans. 

Vampire Bat

There are a surprising number of vampires hiding amongst us in the animal kingdom. For various evolutionary reasons, these animals have adapted to use blood as a food source. Here are some you may not be familiar with, and all have just as much creep cred as any old flying bat:

Dracula Ants (Adetomyrma venatrix) – 

A close-up of a Dracula ant
These rare ants are from Madagascar and are endangered, which is just one of the things that are unusual about them (most ant species thrive spectacularly). Perhaps part of their problem is that they are horrible parents – they’ve earned their common name by their habit of sucking the blood of their young. More specifically, they poke holes in their larvae and slurp up the hemolymph (ant blood) therein. Scientists say this does not harm the larvae, but I remain unconvinced. These ants will also consume the larvae entirely if the colony runs out of food, which is undeniably harmful. Other interesting facts about this insect are that their workers are blind and that they have the fastest animal movement on record – they can snap their mandibles at speeds of up to 200 mph (more on that here).

Vampire Moths (Calyptra spp) – 

A beige Vampire Moth sitting on a person's finger and looking directly into the camera.
While people are busy swatting at mosquitoes or running from bats, they may fall victim to a seemingly harmless little moth – because who’s afraid of a moth? You might want to be, because it seems that the males of these moths have branched out from piercing into fruit and sucking out the juice to piercing into mammals and sucking out the blood. And they don’t bite and run like most mosquitoes do, some will stay on their host for up to 50 minutes! Scientists have not determined definitely why the moths drink blood and why only the males do it, but it is believed it adds something beneficial to their sperm. Vampire moths are fairly widespread across the globe and are not specific in their choices of host animals, but the feeding habits of all the species have not been well documented yet. Which means that you may or may not be in danger of getting bitten by a moth seeking male enhancement. More on these bite-y little things here (including a video that shows their drilling technique while feeding). 

Surprisingly (at least to me)  there are a number of birds that are vampires. And not big and scary-looking ones like vultures (who only ingest blood incidentally while they feed on carrion). These vampires are more seemingly-sweet creatures hiding gruesome tendencies. Bird vampires appear to have evolved from being parasite-eaters to supplementing parasites with doses of blood. It is easy to see how a tick eater could morph into a direct blood drinker.  
Tristan Thrush eating a dead bird. Photo by Brian Gatwicke

Vampire Finch (Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis) and Tristan Thrush (Turdus eremita) - 

From the nursery of evolution, the Galapagos Islands, these two birds have a varied diet, including the blood of other birds. With limited food resources on the islands, it seems only sensible to get whatever you can from whatever you can. Here’s a video of a Vampire Finch sourcing a Boobie bird's blood. A picture of  the Vampire Finch preying on a Boobie won Wildlife Photographer of the Year for Thomas P. Peschak in 2018 - see it here. The Tristan Thrush is another island-based bird with the same blood-sucking habit. In this case, they occasionally like to suck on penguin blood, but it's not a major source of nutrition. They are expert scavengers  and will find food wherever it presents itself. For instance, they will pull other birds out of their burrows, peck them to death and eat them. These guys are brutal - but survivors.  

Oxpecker bird drinking from a wound. Photo by Ian White on Flickr.
Oxpecker Bird (Buphagus spp) – 

These African birds don’t mess around with other birds, they go straight for some of the largest mammals on Earth. They ride around on the backs of buffaloes, giraffes and the like and clean off parasites. But they want blood as much as parasites and will not hesitate to create or reopen wounds to get what they want. These birds can be major pests to their hosts and possibly dangerous to the weakest ones. Here’s video that shows them feeding on, and squabbling over, a buffalo’s blood.  

Looking into the mouth of a Lamprey.
I’ve saved the worst for last in this list of blood-lovers – the Lamprey. For me, the horror factor of these animals is way above and beyond any fictional monster. These fish have thrived and remained unchanged for 360 million years partly because they have pared down to simple sucking machines. They have no jaws or scales; they are simply an elongated body with a suction-cup mouth full of hook-like teeth in circular rows. They are parasites and live to find a host fish to latch onto and live off its blood. The creepiness factor for these fish is really ratcheted up when you see them in the large, squirmy masses they congregate in. Their design may be efficient, but I do not want to ever be in any water that they are in (and they live in fresh and salty water worldwide!). This article has a great video with some close-ups of the mouth, which should explain why I find them so freaky.

Either share your blood willingly or watch your back closely; there are plenty of things that want a piece of you. 

A vampire creature holding a bat and saying "Your wife has a beautiful neck".

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

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