Wanted: Blood for Vampire Bats

Cheryl Morris

By Lynn Laws

AMES, Iowa — Granted, “Got blood?” is a unique dietary request. But it’s genuine (and harmless) if it’s coming from an animal nutritionist at a zoo that cares for vampire bats.

Cheryl Morris is an assistant professor of animal science at Iowa State University. She also has a quarter-time appointment to oversee the nutrition of the animals managed at one of the nation's largest zoos — Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium — which welcomes 1.6 million visitors annually. Her husband, Daniel, is the chief operating officer at the zoo.

At Iowa State, Morris teaches animal science classes and specializes in nutrition research, particularly raw diet formulations for domestic and exotic carnivores. Her nutrition research background includes domestic livestock, exotic ruminants, insects, amphibians, birds, reptiles — and vampire bats.

Vampire bats? Yes, vampire bats!

Vampires have a firm bite on pop culture and the imagination, including dressing up in fangs and cloak on Halloween. That makes vampire bats a popular attraction at the handful of zoos in the country, including the Doorly Zoo, that manages them in captivity, says Morris.

The Bat Cave, within Kingdoms of the Night, is where vampire bats and other species of bats are housed at the zoo. It’s also where, on Oct. 31, 2009, Morris, then Cheryl Dikeman, had hoped to marry Daniel.

“I love Halloween. But the cave wasn’t large enough to hold all of our guests,” says Morris. “We did get married at the zoo, in the Tree Tops Restaurant, that Halloween. Danny wore a black tuxedo, I wore a burgundy dress and half of our guests came in costumes.”

Morris spends most weekends in Omaha with Daniel and the animals in her care at the zoo. She says finding a source of blood for the vampire bats, whose diet consists of approximately 2 tablespoons a day of fresh blood, can be difficult at times. Beef blood is traditionally what vampire bats have been fed in captivity.

“Over the summer, that actually became an issue for the bats in Omaha. Being able to acquire fresh blood on a regular basis that’s from USDA-inspected beef processing facilities is something that can be really challenging, especially if we’re just focused on beef,” says Morris.

In Mexico and Central and South America, their native habitat, they predominantly feed on cattle. Only rarely have they been known to bite humans.

“Vampire bats consume fresh blood. They don’t suck blood or kill an animal when they attach to it. They make a small incision with their razor sharp teeth and lap up the flow,” says Morris.

I’m feeling a little faint.

At the zoo, anticoagulant is added to blood before it is poured into petri dishes and set on the cool floor of the Bat Cave. Vampire bats then swoop down from high crevices in the cave to lap up the red cocktail at their leisure. Because they are nocturnal, they drink more blood at night than during the day.

Morris is looking forward to her newest research project that could help ease the challenge of obtaining blood for vampire bats. The Doorly Zoo is funding the research, in collaboration with the ISU Meats Laboratory, to compare nutrients and palatability of blood from sheep, swine and cattle.

Blood will be collected, in sterilized buckets from animals processed for food at the lab, put into sterilized bottles, frozen and sent to the zoo.

“We’ll look at this from a fresh standpoint or possibly a freeze-dried standpoint to see if there’s a way to develop essentially a dry diet that could be reconstituted, to be fed to bats when we have source issues. But mainly, we’re trying to determine:  Can we actually feed bats a different blood source. Is pork blood a viable blood source? We need to find out if the bats will eat it,” says Morris.

“They’re actually fairly cute little creatures. I’m fond of bats,” adds Morris.

Ooooookkkkaaaay. Can I see your teeth?

This Halloween season, young and old ghouls, goblins and vampires are invited to enjoy trick-or-treating and other fun activities at the Doorly Zoo. For more information, see www.omahazoo.com. Learn more about Iowa State’s Animal Nutrition Program.

Bat Facts:
• Home for vampire bats is Mexico to Central and South American.
• They have an anticoagulant in their saliva, that’s being studied for possible use in humans to prevent and recover from strokes.
• They are the size of a mouse.
• There are thousands of types of bats. 
• While vampire bats lap blood, most species of bats eat bugs; some eat fruit and flowers; others eat fish.
• Bats are an important animal, especially to agriculture. They disperse fruit seeds, pollinate plants and keep insect populations in check, which reduces the need for pesticides.