Vampire bats glide stealthily through the night air as they search for food. Like the legendary monster that they’re named after, these small mammals drink the blood of other animals for survival. They feed on cows, pigs, horses, and birds. Found in Mexico and Central and South America, vampire bats even occasionally bite humans for blood. (But it’s very rare!)
Rather than sucking blood like a vampire, these bats make a small cut with their teeth, then lap up the flowing blood with their tongues. The animals are so light and graceful that they can sometimes drink blood from an animal for more than 30 minutes without waking it up. The blood-sucking doesn’t even hurt their prey. (Find out about Bat Myths Busted.)
Vampire bats have special adaptations to help them with the special way they feed. For instance, researchers discovered that the flying mammals can locate prey by sensing the sound of an animal breathing. These bats can even recognize the breathing patterns of one animal, like a cow, and return to feed from it night after night.
Unlike other species of bats, vampire bats can walk, run, and jump, which helps them attach to their prey. Heat sensors on their noses help them find a good spot on an animal's body to feed. And strong hind legs and a special thumb help them take off after feeding.
What happens if vampire bats don't get their nightly meal? If they can't find blood for two nights in a row, they’ll die. But some vampire bats seem to be generous. Well-fed bats will often regurgitate—or spit up—blood to share with others in exchange for grooming. Captive female bats seem especially friendly toward new mothers. After a baby is born, other bats have been observed feeding the mom for about two weeks after the birth.
Even though bat bites don’t hurt, vampire bats can spread a disease called rabies. This can hurt farmers' livestock, especially cattle herds. However, vampire bats can actually be quite tame, and even friendly to humans. One researcher reported that he had vampire bats that would come to him when he called their names. (But you should never try to handle a wild animal!)