Little White Lies, Let the Right One In Issue
Little White Lies, Let the Right One In Issue
Dr Richard Lane opens a small Tupperware box and pulls out a dead bat. It looks pale and pathetic from its immersion in alcohol, but its black eyes, thorny teeth and strange crumpled nose – something like a small, fanged scrotum – are still enough to inspire caution. Lane lifts it up and spreads its bony wings.
“As you see, they are quite tiny, literally the size of a large house mouse with wings,” he says. “If you look, you can see its teeth. They’re like needles in the bottom of its lip. In this particular one, which is called //Desmodus//, they actually have a little cleft, a little gully for the blood.”
This is a vampire bat, and Lane is Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, having previously been Head of Entomology – the study of insects. In particular, he has specialised in the ‘vectors’, or carriers, of disease – travelling extensively in the developing world to advise bodies such as the World Health Organisation.
“Nearly all vampire bats land near their host and then crawl up and make a small bite, which you can feel as a little nip, and also inject an anti-coagulant with their saliva,” he continues. “The blood they lap up with their little tongues, so I’m afraid there’s no sucking out through the fangs. They literally lap it up like a cat with a bowl of milk.”
There’s something primal, atavistic, about the idea of animals that feed on blood. When Lane describes a friend who woke up on an expedition in Brazil to find the whole of his chest covered in blood (“It was almost definitely a vampire bat feeding on him in the middle of the night.”) you can imagine the frisson of fear and fascination that kept Bram Stoker up at night, pen in hand, imagination firing strange salvos onto the page.
Vampire bats are the most iconic ecto-parasites on earth, yet their connection with the mythological vampire is only relatively recent – probably originating in the Victorian penny-dreadful //Varney the Vampire// by James Malcolm Rymer.
The vampire of English and German Gothic fiction popularised by Rymer, Stoker and Byron drew heavily on eastern European folklore, with its basis in real medieval torturers and tyrants. But more importantly, vampire fiction’s success as agenre results from tapping deep into that unholy trinity in the primal backwater of our brain: of sex and blood, blood and death, death and sex. The vampire is a force of unfettered natural impulse – driven by an unsettling, preternatural hunger, both victimiser and victim of its own condition, blurring the distinction between dominance and submission.
While that cauldron of ambiguities and taboos had an obvious appeal to Victorian audiences, this fiction was also steeped in the Romanticists’ rebellion against the forces of the industrial revolution: of unfettered reason and progress in the name of enlightenment. In this sense, at a time of intellectual certainties, the vampire offered reassuring fear and bewilderment at the opaque and overpowering force of the natural world.
The first recorded use of the word ‘vampire’ was a response to just such a natural phenomenon. The eighteenth-century epidemic of bubonic and bovine plague in southern and eastern Europe saw mysterious deaths followed by exhumations which revealed that the unfortunate occupants had regained consciousness and scratched at their coffins. Entrenched and morbid folklore, and the burgeoning and credulous trades of medicine, media and religion, quickly fed the hysteria.
One Peter Plogojowitz was said to have risen from the dead and killed up to 10 people in a small Hungarian village. He was described (in German) as a ‘//Vanpir//’. Within three months, ‘//Vampire// had appeared in French and English newspapers for the first time and were soon the subject of serious discussion amongst doctors, clerics and philosophers.Ironically, the key trigger of vampire hysteria – the plague – was indeed being spread by an insatiable bloodsucker, the rat flea, but this remained unrecognised until as late as 1898.
“It would be interesting to know whether people had a fear of bats before vampire stories,” says Lane. “I think people have a fear of bats because they are extremely difficult to understand. They come out at night – that’s got to be weird – they fly around like little mice with wings, and they make these funny noises. Is that why we are anxious about them? They don’t bump into us, they don’t get into our hair.” Not even the fact that bats carry rabies is an explanation for what seems to be an instinctual fear: “We actually didn’t know about that until very recently. So whether these are primeval fears, I don’t know.”
This human tendency toward irrational fear can have dramatic, and deadly, consequences, argues Lane. “It’s interesting people are not scared of mosquitoes. You have to convince people to sleep under bed nets because people don’t naturally associate mosquitoes with malaria. About one person dies of malaria every ten seconds. That’s seven jumbo jets full of children every day. Just imagine that.
Lane’s fascination with the natural world, and the spread of disease, is in large part motivated by an interest in the points where nature and mankind meet. “Where you get tsetse flies, generally, you can’t raise cattle. So the expansion of human beings using cattle in Africa is limited, not because tsetse flies are the problem but because of the parasite they transmit [which harbours sleeping sickness],” he explains. “The history of the evolution of human beings, the history of the evolution of different species as to where they can live, is determined by insects that suck blood, which I think is quite amazing.”
But how, exactly, does it work? How are certain creatures able to live on nothing but blood? That, says Lane, is the miracle of evolutionary design: “It’s quite complicated feeding on blood. While blood is a fantastic resource, it’s actually quite dangerous to get hold of. The first obstacle is that they have to find a host. Now usually, but not always, they are feeding at night. So they use infrared detectors, which are unbelievably accurate, CO2 receptors, water receptors and then a number of extremely sophisticated chemical receptors, which pick up the smell of the host. Different hosts smell of different things and we know that various organisms can pick them up from several kilometres away. You’re looking at some extremely sophisticated engineering.”
Evolution has generated many forms of ecto-parasitic behaviour and design. Some, such as the head louse and body louse, feed on only one host: humans. Others, such as the tsetse fly, feed on many. Somewhat disturbingly, the crab louse, or pubic louse, infects both humans and gorillas. Underwater parasites like lampreys suck on the blood of other fish; while leeches feast on fish and mammals, including humans. In the Amazon river, the candiru has developed a legendary reputation by detecting urine in the water and attaching itself to the urethra of its, often human, victim.
This varied behaviour is the embodiment of Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’. But as Dawkins himself points out, in the world of the endo-parasite, or internal parasite, where the survival of the organism is dependant on the survival of its host, cooperative behaviour can be essential. This close relationship with our own parasites has arguably been one of the keys to human survival. Recent studies have suggested that the rise in conditions such as asthma and stomach disorders may be a result of the fact that after thousands of years of benign co-existence, worms have been purged from our systems. Reintroducing the hookworm and pig worm is like reintroducing an old and helpful friend.
For ecto-parasites, the issue of survival is driven by a more simple equation of supply and demand. “You don’t sit on a tree branch and then saw off the branch from the rest of the tree,” says Lane. “As hosts become scarce, so does the ability of the parasite to reproduce. It’s almost like lions and gazelles. If lions are super-efficient and kill most of the gazelles, lions die of starvation. It’s what we call a balance – but it’s not actually a balance because it’s fluctuating all the time. Occasionally parasites are over efficient and kill off their host and go extinct. That is how evolution works. There is no guarantee that any evolutionary path is going to go anywhere.”
So what of humans? If parasitism is such a beautiful method of survival, might a bit of bloodsucking be a good way of perpetuating the species in these difficult times? Blood is rich in fat and protein, although it lacks certain vitamins and minerals. Could we ‘go vampire’ and subsist on blood alone? “We could,” saysLane. “People in East Africa live on blood. They breed their animals and live on the blood. The meat is kept as a currency, as your status in life. So you milk them and you bleed them. But,” he warns, “it isn’t exactly a balanced diet.