Vampires have captivated our imagination for centuries. Despite limited (and fairly predictable) on-screen deaths by stake, sunlight, or a splash of holy water, the sci-fi/horror genre is still going strong (if you ignore the recent Twilight ‘saga’). Old school classics such as The Lost Boys and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are still as watchable today as they were 25 years ago. (Some may argue that perhaps the genre reached its heyday with the wonderfully witty and excellent Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) There is something about these fictional beings that fascinate us. Like Sirens before them, vampires seem to lure us in and, for some unfathomable reason, many of us find them utterly compelling.
You won’t be surprised to discover that the mother of all vampires lived during the Pleistocene.
Belonging to the subfamily Desmodontinae, vampire bats can only be found in Central and South America. Contrary to old tales of blood sucking bats in Europe, these fluttering fiends are not, and have never been, residents there. In fact, tales of demons eating flesh and drinking human blood can be found in almost every culture centuries old. The Persians, Babylonians, Maya, Ancient Greeks and Romans all had their own tales of thirsty beings with a particular taste for thick, warm human blood.
Gruesome evidence of ‘vampires’ has been found in over 100 burials in Bulgaria: each skeleton had a metal object thrust through the chest. These ‘vampire killings’ date back to around 800 years ago. But this was long before bats were associated with blood sucking monsters. It appears that bats silently swooped their way into the legends of vampires after Europeans began travelling to the New World. The earliest record of a real vampire bat was from a particular unlucky Spaniard who, in 1526, saw one drinking the blood from his toes, Yep. His toes. A pretty terrifying thing to wake up to. And no doubt that this was ‘proof’ that the tales of blood sucking demons were true.
There are currently only three extant species of vampire bats darting through the night in Southern and Central America. The White Winged Vampire Bat (Dieamus youngi) and the Hairy Legged Vampire Bat (Dyphilla ecaudata) both feed on blood of birds, and the Common Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus) feeds on mammals. They split from their common ancestor some time during the middle of the Pleistocene.
Vampire bats are not big animals. They would comfortably sit on the palm of my hand. I would rather they didn’t though because they have one terrifying way of feeding. These animals don’t feed on insects, or fruit; they feed solely on blood. Warm, wet blood. They use their highly evolved teeth to slice into the skin of an animal; the top incisors were super sharp, like knives, so the unsuspecting victim wouldn’t feel a thing. Unlike the fictional vampires, real vampire bats don’t suck up the blood, they ravenously lap it up with their tongue, as it oozes out.
Adding to the eeriness of these creatures is that they can walk. Using their hands in front, these animals that are usually more happy on the wing, can scuttle across the ground pretty fast!
There were a few more species of these blood suckers silently flapping around in the Pleistocene’s dark twilight. Amongst others there was the little Florida vampire, Desmodus archaeodaptes, which fluttered around from the Late Pliocene to the middle Pleistocene. There was another, D. stocki, that was a little bit bigger than the Common Vampire Bat, with a skull length of 2.7cm (compared to 2.6cm of the Common Vampire Bat). It appears D. stocki had thicker bones, making this a relatively more robust bat, possibly with a different mode of locomotion when walking. Then, there was the largest of the vampire bats. It should come as no surprise to find out it was named Desmodus draculae.
With a skull length of 3.1cm, compared to the tiny 2.6cm of the common vampire bat, it wasn’t enormous, but it is the largest vampire bat so far discovered. With the scant remains discovered so far, it has been estimated to be 30% larger than the Common Vampire Bat, and so named the ‘Giant Vampire Bat’. It was no Giant Golden Crowned Flying Fox (which fortunately just eats fruit, but is something from a horror film), but it would have given you a bit of a shock, with a wingspan somewhere between 50-60cm (roughly as long as my arm). Chances are that this big beast would have rather fed on my short rugby player thighs than my little toes. Which begs the question: what on Earth were these giants feeding on?
Luckily for these bats, there was no shortage of blood donors. D. draculae was living during a time when giant mammals lolloped across the landscape, including a number of species of giant sloth (Megatherium, Mylodon, and Nothrotherium), Toxodon, and the weird Macrauchenia. Writing on potential food sources for the Giant Vampire Bat, Darren Naish (@Tetzoo) notes how some fossils of the bat have been found associated with some mega-fauna, illustrating that the bats were living alongside these big, hairy mammals. Although we cannot say with 100% certainty, chances are these giants provided a nice warm drink. With terrifyingly larger, sharper incisions D. draculae would have had no problem piercing through the skin of most mega-fauna.
Surprisingly, this species was discovered relatively recently, in 1988. Described from a cave in Northern Venezuela, although no explanation was required, the authors justify naming the species draculae:
“The specific epithet of this largest known chiropteran vampire commemorated Count Dracula, the greatest human vampire of folklore.” (Morgan, et al. 1988)
Fossils remains have been recovered from sites in Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Cuba and Argentina. One specimen has been radiocarbon dated at just 400 years old, suggesting that this giant species has only very recently become extinct. However, it is wise to be cautious of one date from one bone, as there are several reasons for such a young date, including contamination of the specimens. More bones with more dates will undoubtedly provide more fascinating information about this wonderful beast.
Quite possibly the most terrifying God conjured up by the Maya was Camazotz, a half bat half human with an unbelievable bloodthirsty temper. It appears Maya culture was relentlessly gruesome, and this was no exception! Camazotz was known for tearing heads off other gods and ferociously draining blood from its victims. No doubt this figure was created from witnessing vampire bats. Was Camazotz based on the Giant Vampire Bat seen in the flesh by the Maya? Perhaps we will never know, but Camazotz was the original Dracula, modelled on real vampire bats.
Here is an amazing video of a Common Vampire Bat feeding and walking.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
de Mello Martins, F & Hubbe, M, (2012), ‘Craniometric diversity of the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) in Central and South America’, Journal of Mammalogoy. 93 (2). pp.579-588. [Full article]
Greendhall, A M, Joermann, G, & Schmidt, U, (1983), ‘Desmodus rotundus’ Mammalian Species. 202. pp.1-6. [Full article]
Hutchinson, J H, (1967), ‘A Pleistocene Vampire Bat (Desodus stocki) from Potter Creek Cave, Shasta County, California’, PlaeoBios. 3. pp.1-6.
Morgan, G S. et al. (1988), ‘New species of fossil vampire bats (Mammalia: Chiroptera: Desmodontidae) from Florida and Venezuela.’ Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. 101 (4). pp.912-928. [Full article]
Pardinas, U & Tonni, E (2000), ‘A giant vampire (Mammalia, Chiroptera) in the Late Holocene from the Argentinean pampas: palaeoenvironmental significance’, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 160 (3-4). pp.213-221. [Abstract only]
Suarez, W. (2005), ‘Taxonomic status of the Cuban vampire bat (Chiroptera: Phyllostomidae: Desmodontinae: Desmodus).’ Caribbean Journal of Science. 41. pp.761-767. [Full article]