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updated: 2/21/2012 8:06 AM

Vampire bats have a long, interesting history

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  • Bats came to be called vampire bats because the three species from South and Central America, discovered in the 1500s, survive on blood only.

      Bats came to be called vampire bats because the three species from South and Central America, discovered in the 1500s, survive on blood only.
    Courtesy of Jim Schulz/Chicago Zoological Society

 

You wanted to know

Second-graders in Rachel Boehm's class at Hawthorn Elementary North asked about vampire bats. "Why are vampire bats called vampire bats, and what was the largest and smallest bat ever found?"

So why are vampire bats called vampire bats, and what are the smallest and largest bats?

The word vampire often conjures up the misty image of Transylvanian counts with ferocious fangs. The word origins are foggy -- scholars think the word could come from Turkish, Greek or Serbian.

It didn't come into popular use until the 1700s when stories about vampires became popular. Like the immortal soul of the vampire, the novel "Dracula," written in 1891, created the everlasting image of the vampire Count Dracula as a well-dressed half-man, half-wolf nocturnal being that survives by drinking human blood.

Bats came to be called vampire bats because the three species from South and Central America, discovered in the 1500s, survive on blood only. The Brookfield Zoo has somewhere between 50 and 100 of these bats roosting in its Living Coast exhibit.

"We feed them one to two tablespoons of blood each day," said Amy Roberts, curator of mammals at the Brookfield Zoo. "Bats are phenomenally intelligent. We've trained them to come to a scale so we can weigh them."

Creatures that survive on blood are called hematophagous. Some you may have heard of are mosquitoes, leeches, worms and fish. While not all hematophagous organisms are mammals, all are nocturnal and typically quiet.

There are about 1,200 species of bats. The zoo's Australia exhibit is home to a colony of Rodrigues fruit bats, which survive solely on fruit and nectar. With only 1,000 Rodrigues bats remaining in the wild, these bats are part of the zoo's Species Survival Program.

"Zoos keep a sustainable, healthy population in North America so that they will still exist into the future," Rogers said.

The world's largest bats are Megabats, which grow to 16 inches in length. Here in Illinois, there are 12 species of bats. One is the Little Brown bat, which measures four inches in length. The world's smallest bat is the Kitti's hog-nosed, which is one inch long.

People really love bats because they reduce the biting insect population. In one night, one bat can consume 3,000 mosquitoes.

Like all wild animals, they are exciting to observe in their native habitats.

"I see bats a lot at hotels dipping over the pools in the evening looking for insects," Rogers said. "I've seen thousands of them at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and in Austin, Texas, at the Congress Bridge on the River Walk, where people sit outside so they can see the bats."

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