REAL Vampires!

The Halloween season is upon us, and although its seasonal hordes of monsters are legion – ghosts, goblins, mummies, Frankenstein’s monsters, people putting razor blades in apples, etc. – only the vampire has any sort of real world presence, plus they’re fun to talk about, so let’s take a look at the creatures that actually make a living from drinking blood (which is also known as hematophagy)

Now, as hard as this is to hear, pop culture has lied to you about real vampires.  Being a vampire, like any other dream job (shark explosives personal trainer, lingerie hacker spy, etc.) is less about a sexy life style full of leisure and blood, and more about the usual mundanities of existence.  Vampires, it transpires, have to worry about getting killed by what they eat because most of them are much smaller than their hosts, and blood itself is really difficult to digest safely. This may be why so few animals and bugs (don’t tell me that bats aren’t bugs) bother living off blood exclusively.

~~🦇  Blood: Worse For You Than Candy  🦇~~

Vampirism has separately evolved in various bugs more than a few times, so it’s not like it’s a complete failure of a way to live, just a difficult one.  But also, seeing how many millions of types of bug there are out there sort of confirms that it’s at best a niche existence, sort of like how many die-hard Aurra Sing fans there are out there compared to the number of Star Wars fans in total – you can be all into Star Wars for Sing, sur, but your pickings are going to be slim.  Digesting blood just isn’t an easy gig, and scientists have identified five reasons why:

  1. If you want to eat blood, you need to be able to digest the tyrosine, an amino acid found in blood, in your stomach instead of your liver and kidneys (like most most mammals do).  Some scientists genetically removed this ability from some blood-drinking insects and those bugs flat-up died, staked by crystals of undigested tyrosine that had built up in their gut.  I wasn’t able to find out if those scientists were given any kind of Van Helsing awards, but they probably should have been.
  2. If you take out all that the water, blood is about 90% protein, which sounds great, right?  PROTEIN!! Wrong, save it for the fictional obligate carnivore werewolves. If you ate as much protein in a day as a vampire bat does at night, your kidneys would overload and fail from all the urea and other wastes generated by digesting your blood feast.
  3. The hemoglobin in blood is chock full of iron, which also sounds good until you’re digesting it and choke on too much of it at once, again.  That’s called hemochromatosis (no, it’s not a Chrome add-on) and will shut down both your liver and heart if you haven’t evolved to deal with it.
  4. Too much tyrosine, too much protein, too much iron… how about blood not having something you need in it to, you know, to make this deal worse?  Blood just isn’t part of this complete breakfast as it lacks B vitamins, which are something every animal needs but can’t make for themselves.
  5. Lastly, blood is also short on fat, which is an issue if you’re a vampire bat and want to fly around without any extra weight.

So blood is either feast or famine, both of which will kill you.  Hell, even just eating a couple of spoons of blood will earn us mere mortals diarrhea for our troubles.  So obviously not just any creature can up and get a taste for human blood and doom us all, only those who’ve evolved some special biological strategies.  Let’s take a look at some real vampires and see how they do what they do.

~~🦇  Mad Monster Party  🦇~~

Most real vampires are primitive creatures like worms or bugs (so many bugs), more complex forms of life rarely go for the all-blood all-the-time lifestyle: a few fish, only three types of bats… but are there any reptiles or amphibians in the full-time blood house?  Birds? Nope, none of those other than a few opportunist birds or outright meat-eaters. It’s been suggested this is because just being a carnivore and eating the whole animal is an easier nutritional path than focusing on blood alone, so maybe we should be fearing zombies and werewolves more than vampires.  Or again, it could be a matter of numbers and ratios as there’s far more types of bugs than vertebrates (roughly 10 million to 60 thousand or so). So trigger warning: the the following list of real -life bloodsuckers is heavy on the bugs and may get into some squeamish body-horror areas. It’s also probably upsetting to realize this may be an incomplete list.

🦇

The Vampire: Colubraria muricata is a large family of sea snails that feed on the blood of sleeping fish using a long thin feeding tube.  Wait, fish sleep? Anyway, the snail’s feeding tube secretes a bunch of chemicals that probably help its feeding, like an anesthetic, so the “bite” doesn’t get noticed too often, what with that and the fish being, you know, asleep.

Van Helsing Warning:  You’re probably safe from vampiric snails unless you’re a fish.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Sort of creepy I guess, but how hard can it be to sneak up on a sleeping fish?  But I suppose that phallic feeding tube might uphold the “sexy vampire” aesthetic, for some, so this is something of a toss-up.

 

The Vampire:  Oxpeckers – you know, those little birds you see on TV perching on really big African animals.  Oxpeckers are opportunists that dine on the pests those animals attract, as well as its dung, earwax and urine.  This opportunism means if they find (or even create) an open wound, an oxpecker will also drink blood. They’ve even been documented choosing blood over their favorite ticks.

Van Helsing Warning:  If you can avoid having an open wound whilst standing very, very still in Africa, you should be fine.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Neither, oxpeckers are garbage birds.  Check out again that list of what they’re willing to eat, even seagulls have more dignity.  Plus that name.

 

The Vampire:  Ticks are very small arachnids, which is a type of arthropod, which is what all bugs are.  Ticks have have been sucking blood from larger creatures for over a hundred and forty million years, and they’ve gotten pretty good at searching out a soft spot of skin and latching on with their harpoon-like ‘hypostome’, which is basically a kind of built-in barbed straw.  Notoriously hard to remove, you often have to first take off the body and then get out that pesky hypostome thingy that broke off in your skin. Ugh. As you can imagine, this is very unhygienic for the victim, and tick bites may pass on any number of different diseases, some of which may leave you allergic to red meat, partly paralyzed, or just outright dead, depending on which lucky illness you contract.

Van Helsing Warning:  There’s about 900 different species of ticks and they carry so many different diseases that I don’t want to take the time to list them all here, so I’ll just suggest you probably don’t want to be bitten by a tick.  Unfortunately for you, they favor warm humid areas, are common, can be found all over the world, and their range is spreading thanks to global climate change.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Creepy, because ticks are related to spiders, which are fearsome and Halloween spooky.  There might be a little bit of a cool edge to tick as well, because they’ve been found in chunks of amber with dinosaur feathers, so that means they drank dinosaur blood and that’s pretty metal, right?  A good way to make a tick to let go of a host is to hold a lit match close to them, so you get to play with fire and that’s pretty bad-ass too. Then there’s that popular big blue superhero running around yelling about spoons, so while ticks aren’t conventionally cool, they’re so good at what they do that you can’t help but admire them perhaps a little bit.  Before reaching for a match.

 

The Vampire:  Lamprey eels are a kind of fish that use their weird jawless suction-cup mouths to latch onto another fish and then rasp open a hole to suck blood from.  Lampreys started doing that about 360 million years ago, back near the dawn of vertebrate life itself, so ticks are just young’uns by comparison. Like the sea snails above, (and, really, most vampires), lampreys secrete anti-coagulants when they bite, which means any wound they give you won’t scab over too soon and block their meal.

Van Helsing Warning:  Lamprey attacks on humans are pretty rare, probably because we don’t spend too much time in the water.  You can find them in both fresh and saltwater, but if you don’t let them get a hold on you for too long, you’ll be fine.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Cool, for being the ur-vampires of the vertebrate world, if nothing else.  Plus their mouths look like buzz-saws of teeth.

 

The Vampire:  Bats are the only mammals on this list, the only mammals that fly, and yes, are not bugs.  Out of the over 1,2000 species of bats 1, only three drink blood, and those three are all native to the Americas.  When a bat wants to eat, it lands on a likely animal such as a horse or a cow and uses a heat-sensing organs near its nose to find a spot where the blood is near the surface, then nips a tiny wound to lick blood from. Because of blood’s high water content, bats often pee whilst feeding, ew, which can last half an hour or so (the eating I mean, not the peeing).  To save time, bats prefer to revisit the same animal and the same wound if they can. Like the lampreys and snails, bat’s spit also has some really strong anti-coagulants in it to keep the good stuff flowing. Bats will happily regurgitate some blood for their fellow roost-mates that didn’t get a chance to eat, which, while gross to think about, still leaves them higher up on the scale of shared empathy than venture capitalists.

Van Helsing Warning:  Bats have been known to feed on sleeping people and can carry rabies, but the chances of infection are apparently pretty slim; not something I’d want to risk though.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Cool, none more awesome.  Bats “see” in total darkness using sonar hearing, they’re the official bird of Halloween, the chosen symbol of Batman, are nocturnal, live in caves until sundown like mythical vampires in their tombs, and if that’s not enough to make this a slam-dunk, there’s also this sentence from the Wikipedia article:  [vampire bat’s] teeth are so sharp, even handling their skulls in a museum can result in cuts.

 

The Vampire:  The candiru is a small freshwater catfish that feeds on the blood of larger fish by lodging itself inside their gills to access an artery, but are mainly included here for being infamous for supposedly lodging themselves inside men’s penises when they swim or pee into streams in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.  Sadly (or not), real science just doesn’t back up the stories as there’s only been one “documented” case, the facts of which were pretty, uh, fishy.

Van Helsing Warning:  Pretty sure there’s nothing to worry about here.  People’s bodies (of either physical gender) have a number of other holes that a candiru might mistake for the gills of a fish (somehow), but I couldn’t find any mention of this happening to anyone other than incautious men.  I’m also pretty sure this is just another fragile masculinity hysteria about men worrying about about their dicks (see also: koro, the superstition about men’s penises shrinking and disappearing up inside them; that new lack-of-a-penis then somehow results in death of course, because, you know, men).

Cool Or Creepy?:  In reality, neither, a candiru is just some fish, you know?  Mythically, they’re as squirm-inducing as something HR Giger might have come up with, but not half as plausible.

 

The Vampire:  For fun, let’s think of fleas as the jiangshi or Chinese “hopping” vampire of the real-life vampire world, because you know, they jump!  Jiangshi from traditional folklore didn’t drink blood until western influences filtered overseas though, so maybe we shouldn’t.  Still, fleas do jump, easily over a foot if they want to, which is a lot as at their biggest, fleas are a bit like a flat sesame seed.  Fleas, like ticks, have evolved into numerous species, each favoring a particular species of mammalian or avian hosts, which they feed on by sticking their straw-like proboscis into the skin and sucking.  Interestingly, unlike most insects, fleas only have eye spots or even no eyes whatsoever. Some suggest we humans lost most of our mammalian hair to try and keep the fleas off. If so, it failed.

Van Helsing Warning:  Fleas are common in warmer and more humid areas, and are another reason I don’t wish to live in Louisiana again; I remember being a kid and seeing them constantly hopping onto the newspaper I had spread out on the floor to read.  We put flea collars on our cats during the summer months but they barely helped. Fleas can spread disease, but chances are their bite will probably just make you itch, unless they happen to be carrying the bubonic plague or “Black Death” like the rat fleas did during the Middle Ages; millions died.

Cool Or Creepy?:  ‘Black Death’ sounds seriously metal, but unless it has a resurgence, I’m going with neither – fleas are mainly just a nuisance, unless you want to read more about the jigger, a flea that burrows into the skin to lay eggs and then dies in place, which can lead to all sorts of bacterial infections like tetanus.  Jesus Christ, mother nature.

 

The Vampire:  Oh god, bed bugs, this decade’s toxic mold.  Bed bugs are also arthropods that feed on blood and have, like fleas and ticks, evolved into a number of types based on what animals they like to feed on, including a variety dedicated to bats no less.  Another such favored host is humans of course. Interestingly, people who study such things think bed bugs may have evolved in the caves where bats and people lived. Bed bugs like many other blood suckers have saliva with anticoagulants and painkillers as well so that their hosts keep bleeding and don’t notice they’re being bitten.  Mostly nocturnal, bed bugs tend to hide out and lay eggs until they want to eat, then they come crawling out, eat, then go right back into hiding again, probably whilst cackling evilly or something. One common way to tell you have bed bugs, aside from the rashes, allergic symptoms or diseases you might be experiencing, is finding their poop, so they’re obviously gracious house guests and, like house guests, are damned hard to get rid of.  Another fun fact is that all bed bugs mate by “traumatic insemination”, which is about as awful to read about in depth as that phrase implies. After having read up on them for this, I’m starting to convince myself that bed bugs were the original inspiration for vampire myths. Dracula himself should have been a big Kafkaesque bed bug instead of a bat or a wolf.

Van Helsing Warning:   Once nearly completely exterminated from the western and developed world, bed bugs have been on the rise again thanks to a number of factors, from health concerns over the powerful insecticides once used against them and the bed bugs evolving resistance to such, plus the rise of international travel (perhaps this started with The Demeter?).  They’re also really hard to get rid of once they show up somewhere – think of a herd of ticks, but more stealthy. It’s a shame putting up a cross won’t work.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Creepy as hell, without question.  Bats are cute and cuddly mammals by comparison (and some of them even are).  If want to make Dracula really creepy, give him the ability to turn into a swarm of bed bugs instead of bats.  If you don’t believe me, do an image search for bed bugs; I did and I’m regretting it as I may not sleep tonight or ever again without a constant itching sensation.   Feel that itch on the back of your neck? What about on your left side, on your right thigh?

 

The Vampire:  The Tristan thrush is a small, rare sea bird limited to the small group of volcanic islands called Tristan da Cunha in the southern Atlantic Ocean.  They’re not too exciting but for three things: their scientific name is Turdus eremita, haha; they’re also known as a starchy, which makes me think of Adventure Time; they’re basically scavengers and have been known to drink the blood of penguins.  Penguins!

Van Helsing Warning:  Whatever you do, avoid being a penguin the southern Atlantic.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Neither, they’re not even “obligatory hematophagous”, meaning they don’t eat just blood (see: oxpeckers), and their species has a really giggle-inducing Latin name.

 

The Vampire:  The vampire ground finch doesn’t sound like a real bad-ass of a bird, and, well, it’s not.  Like the Tristan thrush, it’s a small bird found only on some islands, but this time it’s on the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific, rather than islands in the Atlantic.  Maybe there’s something about being stuck on remote islands with limited resources that can make a bird go for blood, because the Galápagos Islands also have another species of semi-vampiric birds, the Hood mockingbird.  Anyway, the vampire finch lives a scavenger’s lifestyle that only sometimes features blood-drinking from other birds, mainly blue-footed boobies who rarely bother to put up a fight. As if canvassing for “asshole Galapagos bird of the year” votes, the vampire finch even dines on other bird’s eggs after rolling them around until they break open.

Van Helsing Warning:  Charles Darwin somehow managed to survive encountering them in the wild, so you probably would as well.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Creepy, if you’re a blue-footed boobie, because they’re blood-drinking, baby-killing monsters.

 

The Vampire:  All sorts of worm-like things.  Nematodes, helminths (so close to ‘hellmouths’), and various other kinds of parasitic worms often avoid the whole “annoying your host and getting killed” risk of bloodsucking by setting up house inside the host instead, often inside the gut or a blood vessel itself.  The kind of worms your dog or cat can get fall into this large, somewhat vaguely-defined scientifically group – hookworms, pinworms, roundworms…  I swear, there’s so many of these that we could just grab some adjectives and stick “-worm” on the end to name some more: eyeworm, deathworm, boreworm.  Two of those passed spell check, so they probably do exist, despite me having just made them up (OK, I stole that last one from Flash Gordon).  Leeches are included in this group although not all of them are bloodsuckers and don’t usually live inside their host.  Leeches that do live on blood basically just suction themselves onto a victim, bite and drink, and are easy enough to remove, if rather creepy.  The medical use of leeches goes back to Greece and India, but dropped off during the 1800s or so, although there has been some rather specialized modern usage.

Van Helsing Warning:  Go swimming in some freshwater and you might find some leeches, although I never did while spending much of my youth in creeks, bayous and ponds.  You might also find them in your doctor’s office if you’re being treated for osteoarthritis in Germany, recovering from plastic surgery, or having a body part reattached, as they help reduce swelling apparently.  Or so says Wikipedia; I think they might have be in the pocket of Big Leech.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Generally creepy in the usual body horror way, but more so if you’re particularly freaked out by wormy things – that same Wikipedia page has a video of a leech inch-worming its way up a door and it moves frighteningly quickly.

 

The Vampire:  Calyptra or “vampire moths” don’t sound too frightening and for the most part they aren’t.  There are about seventeen species of moths in the Calyptra genus and about half of which have males are known for drinking blood when they’re not eating fresh fruit, which is probably their main diet.  These moths are part-timers in the hematophagy realm.

Van Helsing Warning:  Originally native to Malaysia, the Urals and Southern Europe, they’ve been turning up recently in places around North Europe, but probably not commonly.  Being fed on by a vampire moth is said to hurt about like a bee sting, but other than perhaps a rash, no other detrimental effect was mentioned anywhere I looked.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Well, “vampire moth” is a cool name, but otherwise they’re not much of either as they look sort of like dried brown leaves.

 

The Vampire:  Tsetse flies get their name from a Bantu language, and means “fly”, so essentially silly Europeans have named these flies “fly flies”.  They probably should have named them “disease flies.” instead, because these vampiric fly have been spreading diseases around Africa since an Italian expeditionary force in 1887 accidentally introduced them to the cattle-destroying rinderpest virus.  Once spread, that virus deprived areas of large herds just as Europeans were establishing colonies on the continent; no large herds of cattle as either food or horsepower for plowing meant little farming, and therefore less food for the Masai people there.  Think about how important “large herds” were to the development of America during the same period and you may start to see this as the problem it was, and still is. Without grazing herds, the grasslands grew into brush-lands, which is just the sort of place tsetse flies thrive in.  Mix in a drought and that lack of food and tsetse fly population may have killed as many as two-thirds of the population when other diseases, such as the smallpox, cholera, typhoid and so on, were also brought in by Europeans; so colonization in Africa was aided and abetted by disease like it was in the Americas With some serious help from the tsetse fly.  Also, just spitballing here, but might the tsetse fly have been one of the many roots of racism against the area and its people? The most common disease the tsetse fly spreads is ‘sleeping sickness’, which plays havoc with an ill person’s central nervous system and leaves them extremely lethargic (or “lazy”), before killing them. These little flying monsters still infest the land today and still prevent any kind of mixed farming, and are widely regarded as a major cause of rural poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.  Tsetse flies themselves make it by on their all-blood diet thanks to some symbiotic microbes that live in their gut, one of which makes all the B vitamins they need.

Van Helsing Warning:  Global warming may spread their range across Africa in the future, but from what I can glean online, they don’t appear to be a threat anywhere else, not that we don’t need to worry about them.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Goddamn bugs are always creepy, and the effect of tsetse flies on their native continent has apparently given racists cover for their idiocy for over a century now, so doubly creepy and hateful.

 

The Vampire:  The kissing bug group of insects are found mainly in the Americas; Charles Darwin (hey, that guy again!) published one of their first scientific mentions in the diary he kept about his trip aboard the HMS Beagle in 1839.  The moniker ‘kissing bug’ may conjure up images of well-coiffed sparkly teen heartthrobs or sexually magnetic foreigners, but don’t let that fool you, the name comes from their habit of ‘drinking’ from around people’s lips and eyes, maybe because the skin’s thinner there.  Like most of the bugs on this list, they also happen to spread disease (Chagas disease is the usual risk), but kissing bugs manage to make this facet of vampirism even grosser by passing these illnesses in their bodily waste that they happen to leave behind while feeding. Like bed bugs (and bats), they’ve obviously never heard the maxim “don’t shit where you eat,” as well as favoring sleeping hosts, hunting at night, and having painless bites thanks to some painkillers in their saliva.  Again, Dracula should have been a bug instead of a bat. Unlike bed bugs though, kissing bugs can make a sound (I couldn’t find any videos of it, but to be fair I did quit searching after watching a single video only because ew) and adult kissing bugs also create a pungent odor if you bother them.

 

Van Helsing Warning:  They can be found in over 28 states (all but the coldest ones) and across South America, so there might be a visit to the kissing booth in your future if you’re unlucky.

Cool Or Creepy?:  Kissing bugs are also known as assassin bugs, which sounds pretty cool, but I think Darwin spelled it out pretty well in The Voyage of the Beagle diary, “It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body.  Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood, and in this state are easily crushed. … if a finger was presented, the bold insect would immediately draw its sucker, make a charge, and if allowed, draw blood. … It was curious to watch its body during the act of sucking, as it changed in less than ten minutes, from being as flat as a wafer to a globular form. This one feast… kept it fat during four whole months; but, after the first fortnight, the insect was quite ready to have another suck.”  Creepy.

 

The Vampire:  Mosquitoes are the most common real vampires, and they’re also the ones most likely to kill you.  Sure, they’re usually just a minor itching annoyance, but mosquitoes, even more than ticks, can carry a crap-ton of diseases, earning them a well-deserved The Most Dangerous Animal In The World trophy.  They live everywhere except the poles and a few islands (like Iceland). The female mosquito is the one most likely to bite you although males also enjoy blood, even if they can’t digest it as well. They basically poke you with the proboscis (again, basically a built-in straw), then inject a little salvia to get its anticoagulants to work so they can drink up uninterrupted by any blood clots – which is why they’re so good at passing diseases, they’re literally spitting in your bloodstream.  I don’t ever want to go outside again unless it’s below freezing, now. The only good thing I can find to say about mosquitoes is that comic-and-animation genius Winsor McCay, of “Little Nemo” and “Dreams Of The Rarebit Fiend” fame, made one of the first animated films called “How a Mosquito Operates” in 1912, over a hundred years ago.  And didn’t die of a mosquito bite.

Van Helsing Warning:  I’ve heard that about one half of all human death since the stone age can be ascribed to malaria, and guess how people get malaria?  And that’s but one of the many terrible diseases you can catch from a mosquito.

Cool Or Creepy?:  There’s flat-out nothing cool or sexy about the insect vampires, as we’ve seen, but lots to be creeped out by, like how mosquitoes are found everywhere and how The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has recently announced that the cases of mosquito (and tick-borne) diseases tripled between 2004 and 2016.  Why are those numbers up? According to the CDC it can be two things: global warming which allows the pests’ range to expand, and globalization, which does the same thing. Hey, guess who was the biggest monster here all along? Looks like it’s man again.

 

The Vampire:  We humans are home to three variety of lice, one of which is ‘crabs’.  All lice are arthropods and some of them are vampires, but let’s talk about the most frightening louse example, the tongue-eating louse, which fortunately only does its thing to fish.  And what a thing it is! A male tongue-eating louse swims into a fish’s mouth, basically latches onto its tongue and cuts off its blood supply, thus causing the fish’s tongue to wither away.  The male louse then takes the place of the tongue (to what end I can’t say, I mean, what does a fish do with its tongue? Hopefully not french kiss) and then changes into a female louse and lives there, either feeding off the fish’s blood or mouth mucus.  Other males then swim in through the fish’s gills to mate with the newly female, tongue-attached louse. You’ve probably seen pictures of this malevolent-looking, creepy thing online and regretted it.

Van Helsing Warning:  You’re not a fish and don’t live, mostly, in the Atlantic ocean, right?  You’re good, although you might find one in a can of tuna, as happened in the UK in 2015, apparently.

Cool Or Creepy?:  So, so creepy.

~~🦇  Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs or anything else bite!  🦇~~

Well, looks like Megara Justice Machine found another science topic he could really sink his teeth into!  Suddenly Halloween doesn’t seem quite as scary as what he’s been able to dig up!  Don’t worry though, his bark (or meow) is worse than his bite!  Hopefully this little foray into the night of creepy crawlies didn’t bug you too much, but it turns out that Mother Nature is a real scream!  But if these tales from the crypt of science are driving you batty, you could hide in your casket and search The Avocado for less frightening things he’s written about science, cats or even that unholy melding of flavors, pumpkin spice!