Rare Video: Vampire Bats Feed on Baby Penguins

No Happy Feet here—for the first time, vampire bats have been filmed drinking blood from penguins.

Documentary filmmakers with BBC Nature recently captured common vampire bats feeding on a colony of Humboldt penguins—including babies—on the coast of southern Peru, near the Atacama Desert. (See penguin pictures.)

vampire bat picture
Vampire bats have extremely sharp, delicate teeth. Photograph by Bruce Dale, National Geographic

Scientists already suspected that vampire bats feed on penguins—there’s been evidence of bite marks on some penguins’ feet, for instance—but no one had actually witnessed it, producer Matthew Gordon told BBC Nature‘s website.

“As we scanned the colony using the infrared LED, the team observed the penguins reacting strangely to something on the ground, they nervously pecked and showed clear signs of agitation,” he told BBC Nature.

“We then fixed our cameras onto one area and waited. Finally, after several hours the team noticed glimmers of light reflecting from the vampire’s eyes as it darted around the penguins’ feet.”

But the BBC footage doesn’t curdle the blood of vampire bat expert Gerald Wilkinson, a biologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “It’s not a surprise—it’s what they do,” he said.

Common vampire bats—which are widespread throughout tropical Latin America—generally snack on anything bigger than a medium-size rodent, usually feeding on livestock, Wilkinson said.

But what is surprising about the BBC video, noted James Eggers, director of education for the nonprofit organization Bat Conservation International, is that common vampire bats prefer mammals, not birds such as penguins.

There are two other species of vampire bat in Latin America that feed only on birds, but they live in wetter climates, Eggers said. It’s likely that a nearby sea lion colony attracted the bats to the area, Wilkinson added.


Finding blood is life-or-death for vampire bats, which need a daily dose to survive. This need has given the bats a unique adaptation: it’s the only mammal that can use its leaf-shaped nose to detect heat in other animals.

Once a vampire bat finds an animal, it hops about—sometimes comically, Eggers said—sensing places where warm blood is coursing closest to the skin’s surface, which are usually extremities such as the feet, fingers, and ears.

Watch National Geographic’s video of vampire bats feeding.

The bat then uses its supersharp teeth to make a tiny incision, lapping up the flowing blood until it’s ingested its weight in blood. Suddenly too heavy to fly, the bat then urinates most of the blood, hanging on to the nutrient-rich blood cells. (See “Vampire Bats Hunt by Sound of Victims’ Breath, Study Says.”)

When all’s said and done, the bat’s tidy work leaves almost no trace, thanks in part to the tiny incision and anticoagulants in their saliva. In fact, most of the animals are asleep during the whole process.

“I was a little disappointed that the title of the video said vampire bats attack penguin chicks—there’s no intention of harm,” Eggers said.

Life-Saving Vampires?

People have a tricky relationship with vampire bats, which can carry rabies and have bitten people while they sleep. However such cases are rare, and in many incidences, the bite is a result of the bats’ other prey being removed, Eggers said. (Rabies is a mammalian virus and can’t be transferred to birds, which includes penguins, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Due to concern over rabies, some governments in the Caribbean and Central America have encouraged people to kill vampire bats, but often people don’t know what the three species look like and end up killing any type of bat, Wilkinson noted. That’s why Eggers’s organization works to educate people about vampire bats. (Explore an interactive about Panama’s bats.)

For instance, research shows that the anticoagulant in vampire bat bat saliva may be an effective way to break up blood clots that lead to strokes in people.

In that sense, Eggers said, “vampire bats are literally saving our lives.”

The vampire bat footage appears in the BBC One series Penguins: Spy in the Huddle.

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.
  • Jamie Curtis

    They’re smart little fellows and no “attack” is involved, so shame on you.
    Vampire bats are altruistic and will feed roost mates who need help, groom each other, and adopt unrelated young. Love them! Heck, I just love bats – they’re a vital part of the natural world.

  • Misi Stine

    Cool video but there is inaccurate information… although bats can become infected with rabies and die (like any other mammal) they are not carriers… also birds cannot contract rabies. If you are going to give information out make sure it is accurate… animals like bats have a hard enough time without misinformation and creating fear about them.

    • Christine Dell’Amore

      Thanks Misi. The experts I interviewed also caught the error that birds can’t get rabies, so I included that in my post. Cheers, Christine

  • Greg

    I’m kinda’ disappointed in the sensationalism of that piece on the part of National Geographic, of all people; they made it sound as if the poor cattle had absolutely nothing to do w/ the sudden influx of rabies to the bats in the first place! I’m sure rabies occurred in the bats, but it wasn’t until man brought in a foreign species (beef cattle), many of whom already HAD inactive rabies, and decimated the bats’ normal prey animals, leaving their infected cattle to fill the obvious food niche that rabies really took off among the vampires. National Geographic should be ashamed of themselves for attempting to turn and already misunderstood animal into a yet bigger “villain”.

  • Kyp

    I wasn’t aware that rabies kills animals within seconds like the video implies with the cow falling over dead and the rest of the herd stampeding in fear. What you also forgot to mention though was that vampire bats also save human lives everyday. Their saliva is used to create drugs that treat stroke. Also, I must agree with the earlier comments, these bats are just as much victims of rabies as are the cows, and are only trying to survive like everybody else. They even show remarkable altruism which is nearly unheard of.

  • Christopher Acosta

    A type of article that would make Batman proud, but for his arch nemsis the Penguin his blood is boiling. Now scientist may add Vampire Bats to list of penguins natural predators along side with Orcas and Leporad Seals. I also agree that bats are way much cooler then those over rated tap dancing penguins whos popularity aready is gone.

    P.S. Warn Mumble and the Penguins of Madgascar not to visit Peru or even Gotham City.

  • Romaine

    I’m a nature-loving person so I wouldn’t agree with killing those little creatures who (like KyP said) are only trying to survive by naturally feeding themselves, given that they’re not killing humans just let them be. I’ve never seen one but there’s something about all Bats that facinates me. Love them!

  • Ashley

    I think it’s great that science is making progress based on natural processes occurring in our environment. I was a little confused by your statement that the feeding bat “leaves no bleeding, thanks to anticoagulants in their saliva”. Generally anticoagulants act to inhibit blood clotting and prevent vessel constriction to promote blood flow from the wound. I’m unclear how anticoagulants could additionally act to leave “no bleeding” in the wound if there primary purpose is to prevent clotting.

    • Christine Dell’Amore

      Thanks for the comment, Ashley. What I meant is that after the vampire bat is done feeding, the wound is not still bleeding heavily, making the animal suffer—the expert said it’s a small incision and you can barely see it. I’ll tweak the language to make that a bit clearer. Thanks!

  • Cheren Bayting

    I wish that I am part of your team.Discovering ,Exploring things , and sharing it to the humanity . 🙂

  • Sarah

    “He has just one all-consuming desire: to feed, and there’s only one thing on the menu: your blood.” That just suggested they’re only mindlessly driven to feed on humans. Nice Dracula theme and lightning too… “They’re bloodaholics. If they miss one night of feeding they could die.” Isn’t “holic” used to suggest obsession not necessity? That’s like saying whales are krillaholics. And next the cow falls dead for us to see all the others literally fleeing in terror from…the bat? The whole presentation has a stomach-churningly misleading feel to it. I’ve seen other presentations that had my own closed-minded coworkers sounding fascinated, but specials like these could more have those same people changing their minds from fear. “It may not be supernatural” close-up of a bat COVERED in blood, “but that’s definitely scary.” So what they’re saying is vaccinate your livestock? Or are they saying be afraid because our footage and silly music tells you to be? What’s the real message being delivered there?

  • abubakar

    An vampire bat snacks horse and mammals its weird

  • Amy Fast

    Bats are interesting creatures. They have some thing called “echolocation”. Not every species of bat is able to echolocate, but most can. Bats have the best hearing of all land mammals. They often have huge ears compared to the rest of the body. Weird but really cool
    PS. Bats are way better then penguins

  • Pingback: Vampire Bats Dwell on by Easiest Ingesting Blood—Now We Know How | TMSS Magazine()

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