Monday, October 19, 2015

Vampires!

Photo by Alejandro Lunadei at Wikimedia.
Vampire mythologies have been around for thousands of years, terrifying the young and old alike with stories of predatory bloodsuckers that feed on our life essences. You may not believe in vampires, but they are all around us. In fact, you may have some in the room with you right now! You just don’t notice them because they are not human, or even human-like.

Vampires feed on the blood of their victims in order to sustain their own lives. This phenomenon, called hematophagy, is more common than typically occurs to us at first. Just take mosquitoes and ticks as examples. Once we’ve opened our minds to the idea of bloodthirsty arthropods, we quickly think of many more: bedbugs, sandflies, blackflies, tsetse flies, assassin bugs, lice, mites, and fleas. In fact, nearly 14,000 arthropod species are hematophages. We can expand our thoughts now to worms (like leeches), fish (such as lampreys and candirĂºs), some mammals (vampire bats), and even some birds (vampire finches, oxpeckers, and hood mockingbirds). We’ve been surrounded by vampires our whole lives, we just never sat up to take notice!

Hematophagous animals are not as scary as mythical vampires, in part because they don’t suck their victims dry – they just take a small blood meal to sustain their tiny bodies. Hematophagy is not, in itself, lethal. However, the process of exposing and taking the blood of many individuals transmits many deadly diseases, like malaria, rabies, dengue fever, West Nile virus, bubonic plague, encephalitis, and typhus.

Because blood feeders do not kill their meals, feeding can be even more dangerous for them than for traditional predators. As a result, many hematophagous animals have developed a similar toolkit. Many have mouthparts that are specialized to work as a needle or a razor and biochemicals in their saliva that work as anticoagulants and pain killers. Their primary skill, however, is their stealth: they can sneak up on you, eat their meal, and be home for bed before you even notice the itch.

Although a few species, like assassin bugs and vampire bats, are obligatory hematophages (only eat blood), most hematophages eat other foods as well. Somehow, Dracula is not quite so intimidating when you imagine him drinking his morning fruit juice, like many mosquitoes do.

Why drink blood in the first place? Blood is a body tissue like any other, and it contains a lot of protein and a variety of sugars, fats and minerals, just like meat. However, blood is mostly water, which means that a blood meal contains less protein and calories than the same weight of meat. Because you need to consume so much more to get enough protein and calories out of a meal, large animals and animals that generate their own body heat can't usually rely on blood meals alone. So much for human-like vampires that only live off the blood of their victims.

A deadly vampire spreading malaria. Photo by the CDC available at Wikimedia.

So true vampires are everywhere, but they are small, take small blood meals, don't generally kill their hosts, and often use blood to supplement their other meals. Not so scary any more, are they? ...Although, about 3.2 billion people (about half the world's population) are at risk of contracting the deadly disease, malaria, from these bloodsuckers... so maybe you aren't scared enough. Bwaa-haha!

No comments:

Post a Comment