Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures

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9780307381125: Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures

For centuries, blood feeders have inhabited our nightmares and horror stories, as well as the shadowy realms of scientific knowledge. In Dark Banquet, zoologist Bill Schutt takes readers on an entertaining voyage into the world of some of nature’s strangest creatures—the sanguivores. Using a sharp eye and mordant wit, Schutt makes a remarkably persuasive case that vampire bats, leeches, ticks, bed bugs, and other vampires are as deserving of our curiosity as warmer and fuzzier species are—and that many of them are even ­worthy of conservation.
Schutt takes us from rural Trinidad to the jungles of Brazil to learn about some of the most reviled, misunderstood, and marvelously evolved animals on our planet: vampire bats. Only recently has fact begun to disentangle itself from fiction concerning these remarkable animals, and Schutt delves into the myths and misconceptions surrounding them.

Examining the substance that sustains nature’s vampires, Schutt reveals just how little we actually knew about blood until well into the twentieth century. We revisit George Washington on his deathbed to learn how ideas about blood and the supposedly therapeutic value of bloodletting, first devised by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, survived into relatively modern times. Schutt also tracks the history of medicinal leech use. Once employed by the tens of millions to drain perceived excesses of blood, today the market for these ancient creatures is booming once again—but for very different reasons.

Among the other blood feeders we meet in these pages are bed bugs, or “ninja insects,” which are making a creepy resurgence in posh hotels and well-kept homes near you. In addition, Dark Banquet details our dangerous and sometimes deadly encounters with ticks, chiggers, and mites (the ­latter implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder—currently devastating honey bees worldwide). Then there are the truly weird—vampire finches. And if you thought piranha were scary, some people believe that the candiru (or willy fish) is the best reason to avoid swimming in the Amazon.

Enlightening, alarming, and appealing to our delight in the bizarre, Dark Banquet peers into a part of the natural world to which we are, through our blood, inextricably linked.

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About the Author:

BILL SCHUTT is an associate professor of biology at C.W. Post College in Long Island and a research associate in mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1. WALLERFIELD
( Nine years earlier )

The ceiling tiles in the abandoned icehouse had fallen long ago, transforming the floor of the cavernous building into a debris-strewn obstacle course.

“Hey, it’s squishy,” I said, stepping gingerly onto a slime-coated chunk just inside the doorway. “Some sort of foam.”

“It’s probably just asbestos.”

My wife, Janet, was a terrific field assistant, but I could tell that this place was already giving her a serious case of the creeps.

“Yes, but with a protective coating of bat shit,” I added, trying to cheer her up. “Let’s check it out.”

Wallerfield, in north-central Trinidad, had been a center for American military operations in the southern Atlantic during World War II. The land on which it had been built became part of the same Lend-Lease program that had brought Churchill’s shell-shocked government fifty outdated American destroyers. Once it had been the largest and busiest air base in the world, but the English were long gone, as were the Yanks (most of them anyway), and now Wallerfield was an overgrown ruin. Row upon row of prefab buildings had either been carted off in pieces by the locals or reclaimed by the scrubby forests of Trinidad’s Central Plain, but because of its cement construction the icehouse was one of the few buildings still standing. Stark white below a mantle of tangled green, the icehouse belonged to the bats—tens of thousands of them.

With help from the Trinidad’s Ministry of Agriculture we’d been collecting vampire bats around the island for nearly two weeks—and things had gone incredibly well. So well, in fact, that when our friend Farouk suggested that we visit the cavernous and somewhat notorious ruins of Wallerfield, Janet and I jumped at the chance to accompany him.

The icehouse wasn’t completely dark yet. Daylight streamed through a window frame that in all likelihood hadn’t held glass in fifty years. The light fell obliquely onto the floor, illuminating the base of a cement pillar that rose a dozen feet to the ceiling. The only movement was from the dust that swirled into and out of  the sunlight. We passed single file through a shaft of motes before continuing on into deepening shadow. The room we were crossing was huge, perhaps two hundred feet long and half as wide, and it took us a good five minutes to pick our way across the slippery rubble.

We stopped at what looked to be a high doorway leading into a smaller room, around fifteen feet square. But instead of entering, our companion put his arm out, stopping us before we could go farther.

“You don’t want to walk in there, boy.” The Indo-Trini accent belonged to Farouk Muradali, head of his government’s Anti-Rabies Unit. Farouk would also become my mentor for all things related to Trinidadian bats and a collaborator on a project to study quadrupedal locomotion in vampire bats.

“Why’s that, Farouk?” I asked, as Janet and I flicked on our headlamps.

“That is not a room,” he said.

As I trained my beam inside the chamber I couldn’t help noticing that the floor had a weird shine to it. “What the—?”

“It’s an elevator shaft.”

“A what?” Janet said, pulling up beside me.

I kicked in a small piece of debris past the threshold and it hit the dark surface with a plop. “Jesus, it’s completely filled with water!”

Janet edged closer, the light from her headlamp focused at a point just beyond the doorway. “That is not water,” she said.

The “floor” of the shaft was a debris-strewn swamp. There was indeed some type of filthy, tar black liquid filling the shaft, but Janet was right—it certainly wasn’t water.

Scattered across the surface of this scuzzy brew were tattered blocks of dark-stained ceiling material as well as unidentifiable rubbish that had been chucked in over the past fifty years. The scariest thing to me was that all of it looked remarkably like the rubble-littered cement floor we were currently standing on.

“A group came in here to see the bats some time ago and one of them, a woman, turned up missing.” Farouk pointed to a spot near where the real floor ended. “They found her there, clutching onto the ledge. Only her head and arms were above the surface.”

I could see my wife give a shudder and she took several steps back from the edge.

Carefully, I moved a bit closer, kneeling at the entrance of the shaft. It still looked like a solid surface. “Farouk. How deep is this friggin’ thing?”

“It goes down several floors,” he said, a bit too matter-of-factly. “And off the main shaft—a maze of side tunnels.”

As the light from my headlamp moved across the glistening surface, something the size of a football catapulted itself through the beam. My reflexes send me backward onto my butt as the object landed with a loud splash. Three headlamp beams hit the impact point, but by then whatever it was had disappeared below the ink black sludge.

“What the hell was that?” Janet asked, her voice an alarmed whisper.

“I think it was a toad,” I responded. “A big mother.” And as I turned back to Farouk, he nodded in agreement.

“They feed on the bats that fall in from above,” he said. “The babies and the weak ones.”

With that, the Trinidadian directed his light upward, until we could just make out the ceiling of the elevator shaft, twenty feet from where we stood.

As I squinted into the darkness, Farouk moved away, motioning us to follow. “You can see the bats much better from upstairs.”

Our companion stopped before a narrow stairway leading to the second floor. The railings had either collapsed long ago or been carted off by the locals, leaving only small circular holes in the cement. Three separate beams moved across the steps, each of us searching for any indication that the stairs might not be safe.

I was on the verge of saying something about the strong smell of ammonia when I heard Farouk’s voice. His tone had grown more serious. “Janet, maybe you should remain down here.”

“Yeah, that’s gonna happen,” I said with a laugh. My wife had recently spent three hours exploring Caura Cave, the floor of which was slick with guano and crawling with enormous roaches, all without a complaint. Only later did I learn that she had had a migraine the entire time. So it came as no shock when she politely waved off Farouk’s chivalrous suggestion and began climbing the darkened stairs.

One year earlier, at a symposium on bat research, I had gotten up the courage to approach Arthur M. Greenhall, one of the world’s leading authorities on vampire bats. I was in the second year of a Ph.D. program at Cornell and like many grad students I was sniffing around for a dissertation project. (Luckily, the head of my graduate committee, John Hermanson wasn’t one of those guys who handed you a ready-made project, although I had to admit there were some days when I wished he had.) By this time, Greenhall was in his midseventies but he was still vibrant and inquisitive—as excited about science as anyone I had ever met.

Born and raised in New York City, he’d had a storied career. In 1933 Greenhall and Raymond Ditmars, his mentor at the New York Zoological Park, had collected the first vampire bat ever to be exhibited alive in the United States. It was a female that turned out to be pregnant, delivering a vampire bat pup several months later. The following year, the young scientist arrived in Trinidad during the height of a major rabies outbreak. He studied the deadly virus and its blood-feeding vector with local scientists and collected additional vampire bats. On his return to the United States, he found he had more specimens than his zoo could display or handle. Greenhall solved the problem by keeping twenty of the creatures in his New York City apartment for two years.

During a break between research presentations that day, I had spoken to several noted bat biologists about possible differences in behavior or anatomy between the three vampire bat genera, Desmodus, Diaemus, and Diphylla. From previous studies I had learned that Desmodus, the common vampire bat, exhibited an incredible array of unbatlike behaviors, including a spiderlike agility on the ground. Just as interesting to me was the way Desmodus initiated flight. In virtually all nonvampire bats, takeoff began with a wing beat that accelerated the animal away from the wall, ceiling, or branch from which it hung. Heavily loaded down after a blood meal, Desmodus was renowned for its ability to catapult itself into flight from the ground by doing a sort of super push-up.

“Maybe,” I proposed, “the other vampire bats, Diaemus or Diphylla, did things a little differently.”

“Not likely,” I was told more than once. “A vampire bat is a vampire bat is a vampire bat,” chanted several bat scientists. I wondered if there might be a secret handshake that went along with this information, one that I had yet to learn.

After introducing myself to Greenhall, I told him what the  bat researchers had said, adding that I found their responses  puzzling.

“Why’s that?” the vampire maven responded. “Well, because the rule of competitive exclusion says that if similar animals are competing for the same resource, in this instance blood, then one of three things will happen. One of the animals will relocate. One of them will go extinct. Or one of them will evolve changes, reducing the competition for that resource.”

“And since vampire bat...

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