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Vampire Bats And Other Blood-Sucking Creatures

JOE PALCA, host:

From NPR News, this is Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. I am Joe Palca. Later in the hour, a new exhibition at the intersection of science and beauty, but first it's Halloween and we're going to talk about a creature that has fangs, drinks blood, and comes out only at night and that is the aptly-named creature, the vampire bat. Vampire bats lived in the tropical of Central and South America. They scour the night for unsuspecting prey like chickens and cows, slice the skin or hide of their prey with razor-sharp teeth, and gently lick the wound, collecting the draining stream of blood with their mouths.

And my next guest has raised this delicate blood-letters. He joins me know to talk about them and other creatures that are happy to drink your blood. Bill Schutt is the author of the new book, "Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures." He is also an associate professor of biology at the CW Post-College of Long Island University, and he is also a research associate in mammalogy at the American Museum of National History in New York. He joins on the phone from Connecticut today. Welcome to the program, Dr. Schutt.

Dr. DAVID SCHUTT (Author/Professor, Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures): It's a pleasure to be on your show.

PALCA: Well, so first of all, what, I am curious, drew you to the study of vampire bats in the first place?

Dr. SCHUTT: Well, I guess, I've always been into strange animals when I was a kid. You know, I was the kid who had a monkey, and a boa constrictor, and all sorts of weird critters so, you know, 30 years later when people contact me for the first time in a long time, and they find out that I spent a lot of time studying vampire bats as part of my career, they are not surprised.

PALCA: They go, what figures.

Dr. SCHUTT: Exactly.

PALCA: What would else would you expect from young Bill Schutt? Oh, I should remind people are our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK, and if you want to talk with Bill Schutt about vampire bats or several of the other interesting blood-sucking. I guess, we think of it as sucking but actually, they, I guess, it drips into their mouth. You describe this interesting capillary tubes that sort of help extract the blood. But my question is, you make the point in the book, I thought it was interesting that, you know, blood is not the world's most nutritious substance. You have to have a specialized digestive system to get a satisfactory meal out of it.

Dr. SCHUTT: Yeah. Not only a specialized digestive system, but basically your entire physiology needs to be highly evolved in order to deal with the fact that blood for instance doesn't have any fat in it. So you can't store fat, which means that you have to feed on blood every day. And that presents some major problems.

PALCA: So, such as.

Dr. SCHUTT: Well, you can't hibernate.

PALCA: So vampire bats don't hibernate, that's why there in the tropics I presume.

Dr. SCHUTT: Excuse me.

PALCA: I say, vampire bats don't hibernate so they're in the tropics, unlike the brown bats that we were just hearing about in New York State, they do hibernate.

Dr. SCHUTT: Yes, that's the reason why you're never going to find them in the United States, because the bats around here run out of insects during the fall and winter and so they get by, by hibernating. Vampire bats would never be able to do that.

PALCA: I guess, you also have to have pretty sophisticated kidneys or blood - I mean, water-balanced mechanisms because blood is mostly water anyway.

Dr. SCHUTT: Exactly. They've got to get rid of - initially, they have to get rid of high amount of water. So while they're feeding, they're actually urinating. And then it becomes a problem of conserving water at a certain point so their kidneys kick into a second gear that turns into a more of a water conservation device. So any of the anatomical systems that you look at in a vampire bat digestive system, you know, their reproductive systems, anything you can think of is really neat to study from an anatomical point of view.

PALCA: All right. So, have you ever been bitten by a vampire bat?

Dr. SCHUTT: No.

PALCA: Are there reports of them biting humans?

Dr. SCHUTT: Oh, yeah. I mean, nowadays, these are or generally really poor people who are living in areas where for example, you don't have screens or doors. But if you're out camping in the middle of an area where vampire bats exist, and you're not using mosquito nets then, yeah, you can get bitten. It doesn't happen very often but it does happen. Primarily, vampire bats are feeding on livestock and other animals.

PALCA: I see but I guess, what I am curious about is the bite of a vampire bat painful? I mean, would you know that you've been bitten by - one of this - the teeth are so sharp and the wound is so small that it wouldn't bother you.

Dr. SCHUTT: Well, if you were handling a vampire bat and got bit, you would know that in a hurry because with the animal struggling and frightened, it could put a real hurt on you and put a serious bite onto you. If it's sneaking up and trying to feed, that's a completely different matter and most likely if you were asleep, you would never know that you'd been bitten because the - their teeth are so sharp that they generally make a painless bite when they do bite - when they're looking for food.

PALCA: All right, interesting. I thought I suspected because you describe some of these animals that they sort of nuzzle up to these chickens and trick the chicken into thinking their young is coming along, then take a little snack.

Dr. SCHUTT: Yeah, that's the white-wing vampire bat and we saw that behavior with that colony that I was keeping at Cornell University when I was a graduate student there. The bat approached the birds, we thought the bird was going to attack at the bat, and suddenly the bat went underneath the breast of the birds, and sort of snuggled into this region where the chicks usually go to warm themselves, and the bird just kind of hunkered down and fell asleep and meanwhile, we saw this - a couple of minutes later - we see this trail of blood coming out from underneath the bird. The bat was feeding underneath this hen.

PALCA: Clever bat.

Dr. SCHUTT: Yeah, great stuff.

PALCA: Let's take a call now. Remember, our number is 800-989-8255. Let's go to Gayle(ph) in San Antonio, Texas. Gayle, welcome to Science Friday.

GAYLE (Caller): Welcome, thank you. Hi.

PALCA: Hi.

GAYLE: I have a question. A friend of mine - I have an interest in entomology, insects, and so a friend of mine told me about this new moth that they had found would actually drink blood and they - I got to watch a bit of the video on the Internet where it was showing, you know, sticking its probe into a finger and another part it was, you know, on the person's face and it was actually drinking the blood and, I didn't get to watch the whole program so I was hoping that he could tell us a little bit more about that if he knew.

PALCA: Blood-thirsty moth.

Dr. SCHUTT: I think that that, excuse me, I think that moth lives in Southeast Asia, if I'm not wrong, and it's really one of the creatures that I wanted to study but didn't get a chance to. So, I do know that not a whole lot is known about its behavior except that it's got this curious diet and do you remember if this was an Asian species?

GAYLE: It was, and I remember that the person studying it was female but yeah, she was in Southeast Asia.

PALCA: But this is also blood-gathered opportunistic or do they have a sharp enough proboscis to...

GAYLE: They figured they had a sharp-enough proboscis and they would stick - and they showed it drilling into the person's finger, and another time they showed it where it was like hovering on a man's lip and sticking it into the softer lip, but they still were able to get it even from the finger. It was quite unique to - what I would think of is how a moth could feed.

Dr. SCHUTT: Yeah, that's wild. I know there some moths that have sharpened a probosci they'll use to drill into fruit, but this is probably been - this behavior hasn't been known for very long, and I imagine if there are going to be some people looking into this to see if there are other blood-feeding adaptations they are like an anticoagulant. Sounds like a fascinating animal, and from the little I know, it seems that, you know, it's a creature that is in need of study.

PALCA: Well, Bill Schutt, we may have to get a ruling from NPR librarian Kee Malesky on whether it's probosci or proboscises but anyway,

GAYLE: Actually, I watched it.

PALCA: Gayle, thanks very much for your call.

GAYLE: Thank you.

PALCA: OK. Let's take another call now and go to Adam in Anchorage, Alaska. Adam, welcome to Science Friday.

ADAM (Caller): Hello, I had a question about the vampire bats and other blood-feeding creatures. Do they, sometime received diseases from the creature that they're sucking on and have those infected the bat or other blood-suckers?

PALCA: Interesting.

Dr. SCHUTT: That's a really good question. I get this question a lot about vampire bats, and sometime I hear about would these creatures - could they transmit AIDS. While blood-feeding creatures are known to transmit different bacteria and disease-causing agents, there has never been - I don't believe there has ever been a study that shows that blood taken in from a vampire bat or blood-feeding creature that was diseased blood, that that disease could then be transmitted to sort of a second host or a second victim.

These relationships between pathogenic organisms and the creatures that carry them are very complex, and they are highly evolved, and that they've taken a long time to develop. And so , it's not saying that that couldn't happen, it's just saying that at this point there - that I know of, there are no instances of where - so for example, if somebody had malaria and you had a bat withdraw blood from somebody and then bite someone else, you could transmit malaria. It's...

PALCA: No, I don't - I think there's - the malaria parasite has an interesting life cycle, and part of it depends on the - whatever the - environment is inside the mosquito gut.

Mr. SCHUTT: Yeah.

PALCA: So I don't think that's going to be - actually while we were talking, our crack editorial staff has found the link to this moth, this Asian moth that drinks blood, and we'll get that up on our website sometime in the not too distant future. So check back and you can find out exactly about this moth. But what - you started with the vampire bats, and that's obviously your research interest, but what got you into this book of other blood-sucking animals. Again, is it your childhood love of the macabre or is it - was there some other idea to understand better the evolution of blood drinking as an evolutionary process?

Mr. SCHUTT: Well, that was all part of it. I think one of the things that was a real stimulus to getting me started on this book was when I started - when I learned that there were these - that creatures that were as different as vampire bats and leeches and ticks and bedbugs all shared these common adaptations that had evolved convergently. Ah, excuse me, had evolved separately. And so you've got these - all of them share sharpened teeth and stealthy approach, and they're all real small. If you're going to feed on blood, you're going to have to do it quite often for the most part. And if you need to feed on a lot of blood, that's just going to make it more difficult.

So those connections that I've - that I saw between very, very different animals, that was one of the things that got me interested in telling the stories of some of these other blood-feeders besides vampires, things like leeches and bedbugs. And the fact that that there is so much news today built around these animals like ticks and bedbugs are having this unbelievable resurgence. So once I started to delve into the things that I didn't know a great deal about, the learning curve was really steep. It got interesting in a hurry. I just met these wonderful people. You could not write - if you're writing fiction, you could use probably some of these folks.

PALCA: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. SCHUTT: And the book just took off from there.

PALCA: That's right. Yeah. That's an excellent story. I have to tell you, by the way, we all - according to the paragon of literary virtue or chromatically usage and language here at NPR. Kim Meleski, she tells me in an email that its proboscises or proboscises. I have to - it's not clear whether the 'C' is hard or soft, but maybe I'll get another email before the show...

Mr. SCHUTT: Well, I stand corrected and see. You learned something there from that.

PALCA: Isn't that great? Isn't that - that's just what we tried to do here at National Public Radio. We give you something new to learn everyday.

Mr. SCHUTT: Well, thanks.

PALCA: But right now, we're talking about blood and blood animals with Bill Schutt. He's the author of a new book called "Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures." I'm Joe Palca and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. OK. Let see if we can find another call now and how about - let's talk to Michael in Cape Coral, Florida. Michael, you're in a swing state. What's on your mind?

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes. Hi. How are you doing?

PALCA: I'm great.

MICHAEL: I've been in pest control for about 14 years. I know there's a beetle in South America. I don't know the name of it. Unfortunately it's - I've lost the name of it. But I know it feeds on blood on your face and it's not the bite that's actually dangerous, but it leaves droppings on your face.

Mr. SCHUTT: Yeah. (unintelligible).

MICHAEL: If you rub that into your face, until recently, the only cure was a heart transplant.

Mr. SCHUTT: Right. That would be the assassin bug, Reduviidae.

MICHAEL: Yeah.

Mr. SCHUTT: It's not actually a beetle. It's a card-carrying bug, and they're one of the creatures that - we think that might be one of the reasons that Charles Darwin had lifelong chronic illnesses when he returned from his voyage around the world, because he had gotten bit by Reduviidaes when he was in - I believed Bolivia or Ecuador.

PALCA: Really. Now, is that the same as Chagas disease? I thought that was called the kissing beetle, and that was transmitted by a beetle.

Mr. SCHUTT: Yeah. I'm not positive what the distinction is there, but - so there's probably more than one.

PALCA: Yeah.

Mr. SCHUTT: But it - the feces to me sounds like the assassin bug.

PALCA: Yeah, yeah, it could be. Interesting, interesting point. All right, let's try another call now and go to - how about Jaime in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Jamie, welcome to the program.

JAMIE (Caller): Hi.

PALCA: Hi, Jamie.

JAMIE: How are you?

PALCA: Great.

JAMIE: I overheard that you guys were studying - this gentleman is studying the blood-sucking bats in South Americ,a and I'm from Chile in South America, and I was studying that over there in South America. They also have the chupacabra, which means 'blood-sucking goat.'

PALCA: Mm hmm.

JAMIE: And I was wondering if there's any possibility that there has been some kind of a cross high-breed with a goat, a dog, and a bat somehow because that's what these pictures look like of the strange phenomenon over there.

PALCA: Wow.

Mr. SCHUTT: Jamie, I think...

JAMIE: It's Halloween. I thought I'd ask you.

PALCA: Yeah, well, for Halloween it's a completely fair question. Jamie, thanks for the call. What about that goat, Schutt?

Mr. SCHUTT: Yeah. I think chupacabra means 'goat sucker,' and the implication there was that goats have been blood drawing(ph) killed. I've never heard before that chupacabras are some type of a mutant bat goat creature.

PALCA: Yeah.

Mr. SCHUTT: It's a new one for me.

PALCA: So again, I want you to talk a little bit before I let you go about the bed bugs. They - you know, what's the deal with them? They actually - they do eat blood as well and largely, our blood.

Mr. SCHUTT: Yeah. There's been a wild resurgence of these creatures. They're very well adapted to the way - to all of our habits - clutter and travel. And they are very, very difficult to get rid of once you've got an infestation. You know, I could run down - there's many new things that we do that just make it very easy for them to get into our houses. If you pick up furniture on the side of the curb and bring it in, these creatures may have - may be infesting that nice-looking bookshelf, or if you have people come over to your house to come to a party, where do you have them throw their coats when they come in?

PALCA: Right. And what - I mean, do they cause problems or they're just annoying?

Mr. SCHUTT: They're just - well, I think it just freaks people out that you're lying in bed and you're getting bitten by these things, but there are no reports of any type of disease transmitted by them, luckily.

PALCA: OK. All right. Well, Bill Schutt, we'll leave it there. I like the idea of not letting the bed bugs bite. What was the Latin name? I forget now.

Mr. SCHUTT: Cimex lectularius.

PALCA: Yeah. Don't let the Cimex lectularius bite you. Anyway, thanks very much for coming on the show.

Mr. SCHUTT: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much.

PALCA: Bill Schutt is the author of the new book "Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures." He's also an associate professor of Biology at the C.W. Post College of Long Island University and he's a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. When we come back, we'll be talking about the intersection of science and beauty and books that exhibit both. So stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.