Birth of a Vampire
Vampire bats are found only in Latin America, where people spend a lot of time and effort trying to eradicate them (and killing countless beneficial, non-vampire bats in the process). But bat researchers are working to save a little-known vampire species. They are raising a small, captive colony of white-winged vampires (Diaemus youngii) in the mountain town of Tijeras, New Mexico.
The Associated Press reports that the team recently recorded the first known birth in the United States of a white-winged vampire pup.
Only three of the more than 1,100 species of bats worldwide are vampires. Two of them — the white-winged and hairy-legged (Diphylla ecaudata) vampires — feed only on blood from birds. Both are so rare that very little is known about them.
Ten white-winged vampires were brought to the United States from the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where they faced almost certain death. “They are all being eradicated,” Daniel Abram told The AP, “so our thought was: Now is the time to intervene, to preserve the genetic material, to establish a viable breeding colony and to educate the public.”
Abram, founder of the New Mexico Bat Research Institute, is an alumnus of a 1999 BCI Bat Conservation and Management Workshop.
“We know very little about the white-winged vampire bat in science at all,” he said. Abram hopes to change that by caring for the colony so he and other researchers can study the bats’ social, mating and feeding behavior and vocalization, The AP reports.
The situation for the species there is dire. “In Trinidad, the white-winged vampire bat population … will be extinct in 10 years,” said Bill Schutt, a biology professor at Southampton College of Long Island University in New York who studied the bats for part of his Ph.D. research.
He said the vampires face not only a threat from humans who consider them an agricultural pest, but also extensive habitat destruction as rain forests are cleared to make room from farms and ranches.
Schutt, AP said, returned to Trinidad to catch and import the bats for Abram’s fledgling institute. But getting the bats into the United States proved a serious hurdle. That’s where the expertise of zookeeper and long-time BCI member Susan Barnard of Atlanta, Georgia, came in.
Barnard, founder and director of a nonprofit research organization called Basically Bats, used her experience and worldwide connections to get the vampire bats to New Mexico. “I’ve worked for zoos and I have been shipping bats and reptiles for more than 20 years. So I know the system — the laws and rules and regulations. I was able to get them through all of that stuff,” she told The Associated Press.
Barnard spearheaded negotiations with the government of Trinidad and acquired the needed permits: from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which requires that exotic species be quarantined for six months; from the Florida Game Commission, where the bats would touch down on their migrant flight; and from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, which will monitor the colony yearly.
“It was very tricky,” Abram said. “With vampire bats, they have to have fresh blood every single day or they perish. So we had 36 hours to get them from Trinidad to Albuquerque.”
All the bats survived the trip last August, and one arrived pregnant. On Nov. 11, she gave birth.
For now, a bedroom of Abram’s home is nearly filled with a flight cage and a smaller enclosure that holds the youngest bat, her mother, and another small female. Two humidifiers keep the bats feeling tropical, and a sliding glass door opens into a chicken coop.
The chickens themselves are a rescue mission. Donated from an Albuquerque egg farm, they had never seen the light of day before their debut as bat food. The adult bats weigh under 40 grams, so the 2-pound chickens don’t seem to mind much. When the bats feed, “it’s dark, so they are naturally sleeping. Most of the time the blood gets taken from the toes and the chickens don’t really feel it,” Abram said.
The bats sneak up on the chickens and make a small incision by biting them, then lap up the pooling blood with their grooved tongues. They sometimes make a sound like that of baby chicks, which seems to calm the birds.
To keep the chickens healthy, Abram makes sure that no chicken is bat dinner more than once a week.