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Vampire bat

Vampire bats
Common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Chiroptera
Family: Phyllostomidae
Subfamily: Desmodontinae
Bonaparte, 1845

Desmodus rotundus
Diphylla ecaudata
Diaemus youngi

Vampire bats are bats whose food source is blood, a dietary trait called hematophagy. Three bat species feed solely on blood: the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata), and the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi). All three species are native to the Americas, ranging from Mexico to Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.


  • Species 1
  • Anatomy and physiology 2
  • Ecology and lifecycle 3
  • Feeding 4
    • Digestion 4.1
  • Human health 5
  • Footnotes 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Due to differences among the three species, each has been placed within a different genus, each consisting of one species. In the older literature, these three genera were placed within a family of their own, Desmodontidae, but taxonomists have now grouped them as a subfamily, the Desmodontinae, in the leaf-nosed bat family, Phyllostomidae.[1]

The three known species of vampire bats all seem more similar to one another than to any other species. That suggests that sanguivorous habits (feeding on blood) evolved only once, and the three species share a common ancestor.[1]

Anatomy and physiology

A vampire bat skeleton, showing the distinctive incisors and canines

Unlike fruit-eating bats, the vampire bats have short, conical muzzles. It also lacks a nose leaf, instead having naked pads with U-shaped grooves at the tip. The common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, also has specialized thermoreceptors on its nose,[2] which aid the animal in locating areas where the blood flows close to the skin of its prey. A nucleus has been found in the brain of vampire bats that has a similar position and similar histology to the infrared receptor of infrared-sensing snakes.[3][4]

A vampire bat has front teeth that are specialized for cutting and the back teeth are much smaller than in other bats. The inferior colliculus, the part of the bat's brain that processes sound, is well adapted to detecting the regular breathing sounds of sleeping animals that serve as its main food source.[5][6]

While other bats have almost lost the ability to maneuver on land, vampire bats can walk, jump, and even run by using a unique, bounding gait, in which the forelimbs instead of the hindlimbs are recruited for force production, as the wings are much more powerful than the legs. This ability to run seems to have evolved independently within the bat lineage.[7]

Vampire bats use infrared radiation to locate blood hotspots on their prey. A recent study has shown that common vampire bats tune a TRP-channel that is already heat-sensitive, TRPV1, by lowering its thermal activation threshold to about 30 °C. This is achieved through alternative splicing of TRPV1 transcripts to produce a channel with a truncated carboxy-terminal cytoplasmic domain. These splicing events occur exclusively in trigeminal ganglia, and not in dorsal root ganglia, thereby maintaining a role for TRPV1 as a detector of noxious heat in somatic afferents.[8] The only other vertebrates capable of detecting infrared radiation are boas, pythons and pit vipers, all of which have pit organs.

Ecology and lifecycle

Vampire bats tend to live in colonies in almost completely dark places, such as caves, old wells, hollow trees, and buildings. They range in Central to South America and live in arid to humid, tropical and subtropical areas. Vampire bat colony numbers can range from single digits to hundreds in roosting sites. The basic social structure of roosting bats is made of female groups and their offspring, a single adult "resident male". Other males form separate groups [9] In hairy-legged vampire bats, the hierarchical segregation of nonresident males appears less strict than in common vampire bats.[10] Nonresident males are accepted into the harems when the ambient temperature lowers. This behavior suggests social thermoregulation.

Resident males mate with the females in their harems, and it is less common for outside males to copulate with the females.[11] Female offspring often remain in their natal groups [11] Several matrilines can be found in a group, as unrelated females regularly join groups.[11] Male offspring tend to live in their natal groups until they are about two years old, sometimes being forcefully expelled by the resident adult males.[11]

Vampire bats form strong bonds with other members of the colony. A related unique adaptation of vampire bats is the sharing of food. A vampire bat can only survive about two days without a meal of blood, yet they cannot be guaranteed of finding food every night. This poses a problem, so when a bat fails to find food, it will often "beg" another bat for food. A "donor" bat may regurgitate a small amount of blood to sustain the other member of the colony. For equally familiar bats, the predictive capacity of reciprocity surpasses that of relatedness.[12] This finding suggests that vampire bats are capable of preferentially aiding their relatives, but that they may benefit more from forming reciprocal, cooperative relationships with relatives and non-relatives alike.[12] Furthermore, donor bats were more likely to approach starving bats and initiate the food sharing. These findings contradict the harassment hypothesis—which claims that individuals share food in order to limit harassment by begging individuals.[12] All considered, vampire bat research should be interpreted cautiously as much of the evidence is correlational and still requires further testing.[13]

Another ability that some vampire bats possess is identifying and monitoring the positions of conspecifics (individuals of the same species) simply by antiphonal calling.[14]

Vampire bats also engage in social grooming.[15] It usually occurs between females and their offspring, but it is also significant between adult females. Social grooming is mostly associated with food sharing.[15]


A vampire bat feeding on a pig (taxidermy specimens)

Vampire bats hunt only when it is fully dark. Like fruit-eating bats, and unlike insectivorous and fish-eating bats, they emit only low-energy sound pulses. The common vampire bat feeds mostly on the blood of mammals (occasionally including humans), whereas both the hairy-legged vampire bat and white-winged vampire bat feed on the blood of birds. Once the common vampire bat locates a host, such as a sleeping mammal, it lands and approaches it on the ground. It then likely uses thermoception to identify a warm spot on the skin to bite. They then create a small incision with their teeth and lap up blood from the wound.

As noted by Arthur M. Greenhall:

If there is fur on the skin of the host, the common vampire bat uses its canine and cheek teeth like a barber's blades to shave away the hairs. The bat's razor-sharp upper incisor teeth then make a 7mm wide and 8mm deep cut. The upper incisors lack enamel, which keeps them permanently razor sharp.[17]

The bat’s saliva, left in the victim's resulting bite wound, has a key function in feeding from the wound. The saliva contains several compounds that prolong bleeding, such as anticoagulants that inhibit blood clotting,[18] and compounds that prevent the constriction of blood vessels near the wound.


A typical female vampire bat weighs 40 grams and can consume over 20 grams (1 fluid ounce) of blood in a 20-minute feed. This feeding behaviour is facilitated by its anatomy and physiology for rapid processing and digestion of the blood to enable the animal to take flight soon after the feeding. The stomach lining rapidly absorbs the blood plasma, which is quickly transported to the kidneys, and on to the bladder for excretion.[19] A common vampire bat begins to expel urine within two minutes of feeding. While shedding much of the blood's liquid facilitates flight takeoff, the bat still has added almost 20–30% of its body weight in blood. To take off from the ground, the bat generates extra lift by crouching and flinging itself into the air.[20] Typically, within two hours of setting out in search of food, the common vampire bat returns to its roost and settles down to spend the rest of the night digesting its meal.

Human health

Vampire bat at the Louisville Zoo

Although rare, infection of humans by rabies from vampire bat bites has been documented; for example in 2010 four children in Peru died after being bitten.[21] The highest occurrence of rabies in vampire bats occurs in the large populations found in South America. However, the risk of infection to the human population is less than to livestock exposed to bat bites.[22] Only 0.5% of bats carry rabies, and those that do may be clumsy, disoriented, and unable to fly.

The unique properties of the vampire bats' saliva have found some positive use in medicine. A study in the January 10, 2003, issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association tested a genetically engineered drug called desmoteplase, which uses the anticoagulant properties of the saliva of Desmodus rotundus, and was shown to increase blood flow in stroke patients.


  1. ^ a b Andrea L. Wetterer, Matthew V. Rockman, Nancy B. Simmons (2000). "Phylogeny of phyllostomid bats (Mammalia: Chiroptera): data from diverse morphological systems, sex chromosomes, and restriction sites." (PDF). Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 248: 1–200.  
  2. ^ Ludwig Kürten, Uwe Schmidt, Klaus Schäfer (1984). "Warm and Cold Receptors in the Nose of the Vampire Bat Desmodus rotundus.". Naturwissenschaften 71: 327–328.  
  3. ^ Angela L. Campbell, Rajesh R. Naik, Laura Sowards and Morley O. Stone (2002). "Biological infrared imaging and sensing" (PDF). Micron 33 (2): 211–225.  
  4. ^ *Kishida R, Goris RC, Terashima S, Dubbeldam J (1984). "A suspected infrared-recipient nucleus in the brainstem of the vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus". Brain Res. 322 (2): 351–5.  
  5. ^ Uwe Schmidt, Peter A. Schlegel, Hermann Schweizer and Gerhard Neuweiler (1991). "Audition in vampire bats, Desmodus rotundus" (PDF). J Comp Physiol 168: 45–51.  
  6. ^ Udo Gröger and Lutz Wiegrebe (2006). "Classification of human breathing sounds by the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus". BMC Biology 4: 18.  
  7. ^ Riskin, Daniel K. and John W. Hermanson. 2005. Biomechanics: Independent evolution of running in vampire bats. Nature 434: 292–292. Abstract, video.
  8. ^ Elena O. Gracheva, Julio F. Codero-Morales, José A. González-Carcaía, Nicholas T. Ingolia, Carlo Manno, Carla I. Aranguren, Jonathan S. Weissman and David Julius (2011). "Ganglion-specific splicing of TRPV1 underlies infrared sensation in vampire bats". nature 476: 88–91.  
  9. ^ Wilkinson, Gerald S. "The social organization of the common vampire bat." Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 17.2 (1985): 123-134.
  10. ^ Delpietro, H. A., & Russo, R. G. (2002). Observations of the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) and the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata) in captivity. Mammalian Biology-Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, 67(2), 65-78.
  11. ^ a b c d Wilkinson, G. S. (1985). "The Social Organization of the Common Vampire Bat II:Mating System, Genetic Structure and Relatedness." Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 17(2): 123–134.
  12. ^ a b c Carter, G. G. & Wilkinson, G. S. (2013). "Food sharing in vampire bats: reciprocal help predicts donations more than relatedness or harassment". Proc R Soc B 280: 20122573.  
  13. ^ Carter, G. & Wilkinson, G. (2013). "Does food sharing in vampire bats demonstrate reciprocity?". Communicative and Integrative Biology 6(6): e25783.  
  14. ^ Carter, G. G., Fenton, M. B., & Faure, P. A. (2009). "White-winged vampire bats (Diaemus youngi) exchange contact calls". NRC Research Press 87: 604–608.  
  15. ^ a b Wilkinson, G. S. 1986. "Social grooming in the common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus". Animal Behaviour, 34 (6): 1880–1889.
  16. ^ Greenhall, Arthur M. 1961. Bats in Agriculture, p. 8. A Ministry of Agriculture Publication. Trinidad and Tobago.
  17. ^ Greenhall, Arthur M. (1988) "Feeding Behavior". In: Natural History of Vampire Bats (ed. by A. M. Greenhall and U. Schmidt), 111–132. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
  18. ^ Christine Hawkey (1966) "Plasminogen Activator in Saliva of the Vampire Bat Desmodus rotundus", Nature, 211:434–435
  19. ^ McFarland, W. N., and W. A. Wimsatt. (1965) "Urine flow and composition in the vampire bat". Amer. Zool., 5:662–667.
  20. ^ Schutt, W. A. Altenbach, J. S. Chang, Y. H. Cullinane, D. M. Hermanson, J. W. Muradali, F. Bertram, J. E. A. (1997) "The dynamics of flight-initiating jumps in the common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus", Journal Of Experimental Biology 200(23):3003–3012
  21. ^ "Peru battles rabid vampire bats after 500 people bitten". BBC. Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  22. ^

Further reading

  • Greenhall, Arthur M. 1961. Bats in Agriculture. A Ministry of Agriculture Publication. Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Greenhall, Arthur M. 1965. The Feeding Habits of Trinidad Vampire Bats.
  • Greenhall, A., G. Joermann, U. Schmidt, M. Seidel. 1983. Mammalian Species: Desmodus rotundus. American Society of Mammalogists, 202: 1–6.
  • A.M. Greenhall and U. Schmidt, editors. 1988. Natural History of Vampire Bats, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida. ISBN 0-8493-6750-6; ISBN 978-0-8493-6750-2
  • Campbell A, Naik RR, Sowards L, Stone M (2002). "Biological infrared imaging and sensing" (PDF). Micron 33 (2): 211–225.  
  • Pawan, J.L. (1936b). "Rabies in the Vampire Bat of Trinidad with Special Reference to the Clinical Course and the Latency of Infection." Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology. Vol. 30, No. 4. December, 1936.

External links

  • Research blog on vampire bats A website devoted to social behavior and cognition of vampire bats.
  • Schutt, W.A., Jr. "Dark Banquet" A website devoted to the biology of blood feeding creatures.
  • Bat World - An all-volunteer, non-salaried, non-profit organization devoted to the education, conservation and rehabilitation of bats
  • Bat Conservation International A website devoted to the education, conservation and study of bats.
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