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No need to fear the vampire ... bat

August 21, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Who couldn't love that face? Vampire bats get a bad rap, says a conservation expert
Who couldn't love that face? Vampire bats get a bad rap, says a conservation… (Ho / AFP/Getty Images )

Pity the poor vampire bat. It's bad enough that it's called a vampire bat, but lately the creature has been in need of some spin control.

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about a year ago a young man in the U.S. died from rabies linked to a vampire bat, the first such reported death in the country.

The CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report noted that the man was bitten while in Michoacan, Mexico, then later traveled to the U.S. for work, where he eventually sought treatment and died. But it's still got some people fearful that the flying mammals are invading U.S. borders, ready to suck the blood out of its citizens.

Not so, says Nina Fascione, executive director of Bat Conservation International, an Austin Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving bats and protecting their ecosystems. In fact, the organization was concerned enough that vampire bats' reputation would spiral down after the report of the death last year that it issued a news release reassuring the public that vampire bats weren't bent on spreading rabies here.

"We feel terrible about the young man who died," Fascione said, adding, "In our experience people have always freaked out about bats, particularly vampire bats. But we have no vampire bats in the U.S. now."

They live instead south of us, from Mexico to South America. And while bats can carry rabies, she said, most don't. Still, it's best not to touch any bat found in the wild, for a number of reasons.

Some people, Fascione said, were under the misconception that all bats were vampire bats. But only three species eat blood, she said, while the vast majority chow down on fruit, pollen and insects. Even when they eat blood they don't suck it out. According to the news release, "they lap it like kittens." Awww.

Vampire bats may even help humans--scientists are looking into using the anticoagulant found in the bats' saliva (which helps their victims' blood flow more freely) as a way to dissolve blood clots in the brain that can lead to stroke.

We can learn from them, too. Vampire bats practice reciprocal altruism — if a bat is starving another will regurgitate blood into its mouth, and the bats that have been fed return the favor. When was the last time you did that? Never mind, bad question.

Even if vampire bats do find their way north due to climate change or other environmental conditions, chances are we'll be OK. "It's certainly decades away," Fascione said, adding that periods of cold temperatures could slow down any migration. "Even if they do move into the U.S. our federal agencies will treat them as an invasive species and they'll be managed accordingly. It's nothing anybody needs to worry about."

So go watch an episode of "True Blood" and relax.

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