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‘Morbius’: the worst part is how it smears vampire bats

A look at what the animals are really like.

Sony’s MCU-adjacent film Morbius, released in theaters in April and on Netflix this month, perpetuates the negative stereotype that vampire bats are as murderous and destructive as the monsters for which they’re named. In the opening sequence of the movie, Dr. Michael Morbius stands outside a cave in Costa Rica, full of vampire bats and guarded by a high tech gate of some kind. The people he’s with are visibly frightened, and it’s implied they’ll die if they’re still present when the bats leave the cave to hunt. The bats are shown to be aggressive predators that chase the men down, drawn by the blood seeping out of a self-inflicted wound on Morbius’ hand.

Nothing in this scene could be further from reality.

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Morbius entices vampire bats

Jared Leto as Morbius (Sony Pictures)

Of the 1,300 known species of bats, only three drink blood as their main food source. They live exclusively in the rainforests of Latin America, where there are surprisingly few vampire myths, most of which came over with European sailors. These teacup-sized mammals live in nearly complete darkness in caves, wells, trees, and old buildings. They gather in colonies of a few hundred members, though under the correct circumstances, those numbers can grow to the thousands.

Vampire bats only hunt at night, leaving their roosts once darkness has completely set in. While they do hunt in groups, it’s not an organized violent attack on a single animal. Using echolocation, smell, and sound, the bats locate a potential prey animal, generally a large mammal or bird (they’ll feed on humans but only opportunistically; they don’t seek humans out as a food source). Once a vampire bat lands on an animal, it uses heat sensors in its nose to find a vein to feed from. They can run at speeds up to 3 feet per second, and jump on their prey to get to the best feeding locations, like the neck and rump.

To feed, vampire bats use their teeth to shave away the fur from a small spot on their prey and then make a small incision in the skin. A clotting agent, aptly named draculin, keeps the blood flowing as they lap it up with their tongues. Vampire bats are so small that most of their prey don’t even know the bats are there, even if two or three land on the same animal.  Each bat only consumes one or two teaspoons of blood in a sitting. But for a creature this small, that’s enough to render them too heavy to fly, so they have to scurry away and hide while they partially digest their meal.

Vampire bats are very social animals. They care for each other through reciprocal grooming and food sharing. Bats that are unable to hunt or do not find food are often given food via regurgitation. This is generally done among family group members, though it’s been observed that some bats which stay in the roost to rest or guard pups are fed by other bats. Food-sharing almost looks like kissing, as one bat licks blood from the mouth of another. If some bats are taking advantage of food-sharing and being lazy, though, the colony will stop them and kick them out. Vampire bats can only live for a day or two without feeding.

Dominant adult male vampire bats defend and mate with groups of females, though nonresident males will occasionally find their way into the group and mate with unguarded females. Each female has one pup per season and are pregnant for about 7 months. The pups are mainly raised by the females and begin to hunt with their mothers at around 6 months of age, but are not fully weened until 9 months. Females tend to stay with the colony as they mature, while young males are often pushed out by the dominant males after a year or two.

The negative stereotypes surrounding vampire bats have sadly spread to their insect- and fruit-eating counterparts, too. Many species of bats are in decline. Climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species, and disease are causing populations to fall, and some species are becoming endangered and could face extinction. Bats are an incredibly important part of our planet’s ecosystem, not only for controlling insect populations, but they are also pollinators helping to ensure plant biodiversity and food production through seed dispersion. For information on how you can help protect bats, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at www.fws.gov.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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