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Scientists suck the true story out of a vampire bat’s taste for blood

AP, March 28, 2022 7:00PM Kids News

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The vampire bat is the only mammal species that feeds exclusively on blood. Unlike other feeding strategies, drinking blood is an evolutionary specialisation, as blood is a nutrient-poor resource low in carbohydrates and vitamins. Picture: AFP Photo/Nature Publishing Group/Brock Fenton media_cameraThe vampire bat is the only mammal species that feeds exclusively on blood. Unlike other feeding strategies, drinking blood is an evolutionary specialisation, as blood is a nutrient-poor resource low in carbohydrates and vitamins. Picture: AFP Photo/Nature Publishing Group/Brock Fenton

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Scientists have figured out why vampire bats are the only mammals* that can survive on a diet of just blood.

They compared the genome* of common vampire bats to 26 other bat species and identified 13 genes that are missing or no longer work in vampire bats. Over the years, those gene tweaks have helped them adapt to a blood diet rich in iron and protein but with minimal fats or carbohydrates*, researchers reported on Friday in the journal Science Advances.

media_cameraA vampire bat hangs out at the Philadelphia Zoo awaiting its lunch of blood. Common vampire bats rarely feed on humans, they usually feed on the blood of cows, horses and goats. Picture: AP Photo/Sabina Pierce

The bats live in South and Central America and are basically “living Draculas,” said Max Planck Institute Professor and co-author Michael Hiller.

About eight centimetres long with a wingspan of 18 centimetres, the bats bite and then lap up blood from livestock* or other animals at night.

Most mammals couldn’t survive on a low-calorie liquid diet of blood. Only three vampire species of the 1400 kinds of bats can do that — the others eat mostly insects, fruit, nectar*, pollen* or meat, such as small frogs and fish.

FILE--This is an undated file photo originally provided by Universal Pictures, Bela Lugosi portrays Count Dracula in the 1931 film, Dracula.| (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, file) media_cameraVampires have fascinated people since Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel Dracula, but in reality vampire bats are the only mammals that can survive a blood-only diet. Pictured is Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in the 1931 film, Dracula. Picture: AP Photo/Universal Pictures/file

“Blood is a terrible food source,” said Tulane University bat researcher Dr Hannah Kim Frank, who was not involved in the study. “It’s totally bizarre and amazing that vampire bats can survive on blood — they are really weird, even among bats.”

Some other creatures also have a taste for blood, including mosquitoes, bedbugs*, leeches and fleas.

The latest work expands upon research by another team that pinpointed* three of the 13 gene losses.

“The new paper shows how different vampire bats are from even other closely related bats, which eat nectar and fruit,” said Virginia Tech Assistant Professor Kate Langwig, a bat researcher who had no role in the study.

EMBARGO - RELEASABLE ON JUNE 12, 2012 at 2301 GMT. THIS RESTRICTION APPLIES TO ALL MEDIA INCLUDING WEBSITES (FILES) A handout file photo released on August 13, 2010 in Lima by the Peruvian Ministry of Health shows a vampire bat captured at a camp in the jungle province of Condorcanqui, near the border with Ecuador, some 1,000 kms north of Lima. Culling vampire bats in a bid to curtail the spread of rabies to humans and livestock, may in fact be counterproductive, scientists said on June 12, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ MINSA RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT |AFP PHOTO / MINSA | - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS media_cameraThis vampire bat was capture in Peru in 2012 – vampire bats are found in Central and South America. Picture: AFP Photo/MINSA

With such a low-calorie diet, vampire bats can’t go long without a meal. In a pinch, well-fed ones will regurgitate* their food to share with a starving neighbour. They seem to keep track of who has helped them in the past, said Professor Hiller, noting that vampire bats have complex social relationships.

“It’s not a kin* thing,” said Tulane University’s Dr Frank. “They just notice and remember: ‘You’re a good sharer, I will reward you’.”

Supplied Editorial Vampire bats media_cameraVampire bats have complex social relationships and will regurgitate food to help feed a neighbour in need. Picture: file image

GLOSSARY

  • mammals: warm-blooded vertebrates like dogs and humans that birth babies and feed young with milk
  • genome: any organism’s complete set of genetic information
  • carbohydrates: the sugars, starches and fibres in fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products
  • livestock: farm animals like cows and sheep that are kept or traded for income
  • nectar: sweet liquid produced by flowers, which bees and other insects collect
  • pollen: powder produced by the male part of a flower, that causes the female part of the same type of flower to produce seeds
  • bedbug: very small, wingless bug that bites people at night, often found in unclean beds
  • pinpointed: identified, discovered, located, detected
  • regurgitate: act of bringing swallowed food back up to the mouth
  • kin: group with common ancestry, family, relatives

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. How many species of bat are there?
  2. A blood diet is rich in what two features?
  3. How many genes are missing or defunct (no longer in use) in vampire bats?
  4. What are four other creatures that also have a taste for blood?
  5. How do vampire bats help each other if one of them is starving?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Vampire bats
Complete the Venn diagram below classifying information about vampire bats and other bat species mentioned in the Kids News article.

media_cameraWhich traits are exclusive to vampire bats and which coincide with other bat species?

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science; Critical and Creative Thinking

2. Extension
“You’re a good sharer, I will reward you” is the behaviour vampire bats exhibit towards each other. When has this applied in your life? Give an example and share with a friend.

Time: allow five minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Personal and Social

VCOP ACTIVITY
Read with Kung Fu punctuation

Pair up with the article between you and stand up to make it easy to demonstrate your Kung Fu punctuation.

Practise reading one sentence at a time. Now read it again, while acting out the punctuation as you read.

Read and act three sentences before swapping with your partner.

Take two turns each.

Now ask your partner to read a sentence out loud while you try and act out the punctuation. Can you keep up? Swap over?

Try acting out two sentences – are you laughing yet?

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