Vampire bats have had to evolve in concert with their microorganisms. Photo: Belizar, Shutterstock

Vampire bats’ bloody teamwork

Vampire bats are the only mammals that feed exclusively on blood. The way they manage to do that offers us some remarkable insights into evolution.

Many mammals consume blood as part of their diet, but blood is actually a pretty poor source of energy. Only bats (order Chiroptera) include species that are exclusively blood feeding.

So how do vampire bats manage to survive on such low-grade nourishment? A recently published article in Nature Ecology & Evolution provides part of the answer. The bats had to evolve in tandem with their microorganisms.

Blood is actually a pretty poor source of energy. Illustration: Colourbox

The challenges were clear. Blood consists of 78 per cent liquid. The remainder is 93 per cent proteins and only one per cent carbohydrates. Blood provides very little in the way of vitamins. On top of all that, a blood-based diet exposes these animals to blood-borne pathogens.

To find the answer, researchers had to look at the vampire bat’s genome.

Vampire bats co-evolved

So now the genes of the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) have been thoroughly investigated. But not only its genes.

Professor Tom Gilbert is the senior author of the Nature article and has collaborated with PhD student and first author Lisandra Zepeda Mendoza on this research. Gilbert works at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, and also holds a part-time position as an adjunct professor at the NTNU University Museum.

Coping with this kind of diet requires one species to co-evolve with other species,” says Gilbert.

But exactly which other species vampire bats have co-evolved with may not be immediately apparent.

Vampire adaptations

Some vampire bat characteristics are easy to recognize. Vampire bats have developed specialized adaptations that enable them to access blood and then make use of it.

All three species of vampire bats are native to the Americas. Anyone who has watched animal programs or somewhat suspect movies is probably familiar with some of their adaptive behaviours.

  • Everyone knows about bats’ razor sharp teeth and especially their striking incisors. The teeth are practical for penetrating the skin of their victim.
  • The bats also have specialized cells, called thermoreceptors, that can detect heat and are useful in finding bare skin on a sleeping animal at night.
  • Vampire bats’ infrared vision helps to find blood vessels.
  • Substances in the bat’s saliva prevent the blood in a wound from coagulating.

The bat’s inner adaptations are at least as interesting as the more obvious outer ones:

  • The kidneys are specially adapted to cope with high protein content.
  • The immune system helps deal with any pathogens.

However, none of these known adaptations explains how vampire bats have evolved to rely exclusively on blood for their nutrition. This is what the researchers behind the recent Nature article set out to investigate.

This development seems to require one species to develop in tandem with other species. The way this happens may alter the way we perceive evolution: it turns out the other species we co-evolve with are found within us.

The story continues under the photo.

Vampire bats have developed specialized adaptations that enable them to access blood and then make use of it. Photo: Belizar, Shutterstock

Everything that lives inside you

According to the article, a diet this specialized requires a highly specific adaptation of the genome of the species itself. But it also requires a uniquely adapted microbiome.

In case you’re not familiar with what a microbiome is, we’ll take break from all the blood for a few paragraphs.

A microbiome consists of the entire genetic material of all the microorganisms that live in our bodies, whether we’re talking about viruses, bacteria or fungi.

You and I and everyone you know are full of other organisms, maybe around 100 trillion of them. The actual number is controversial and subject to debate – but a lot of organisms at any rate.

Some folks may feel a creepy disgust at this thought, but there’s little to loathe about them. We are completely dependent on other organisms to survive, and the vast majority of them are useful, or at least don’t pull any bad pranks that you would notice.

We have even co-evolved with several of these organisms and share evolutionary history with them. At least that’s the way it works with vampire bats.

The story continues under the photo.

In order to understand vampire bats you have to look at the bat’s own genes and all the genes in the microbiome as a whole. Photo Jacinto Yoder, Shutterstock

Hologenome – we’re all in it together

Our results show that vampire bats became blood sippers after their own genome and microbiome co-evolved closely,” the Nature article says.

The genes of the vampire bats thus evolved along with all the microbes in their bodies.

In other words, in order to understand vampire bats you have to look at the bat’s own genes and all the genes in the microbiome as a whole. This is what researchers call the “hologenome” – the genes of the host plus all its symbiotic microbial guests.

The common vampire bat has a unique hologenome. The vampire bat’s microbiome helps to compensate for the lack of vitamins and various fatty substances in what would otherwise be an imbalanced diet. Its microbes also help the body get rid of waste and maintain the cells’ fluid balance through osmoregulation.

The article’s researchers emphasize the value they found in studying both the host and its interaction with the microbiome as they tried to figure out the adaptations that underlie the vampire bat’s radical diet.

The bat’s ability to survive on a diet that would be inadequate for other mammals is in fact only made possible through the help of the microbiome.

“But the main finding probably applies to all animals in regards to their diet, whether we’re talking about cows and grass, vultures and carrion or koalas and eucalyptus. We have to look at both the animal itself and the collective microbes to understand what’s happening. Now we’ve arrived at a point where this is possible both technically and economically,” says Professor Gilbert.


Hologenomic adaptations underlying the evolution of sanguivory in the common vampire bat. M. Lisandra Zepeda Mendoza, Zijun Xiong, Marina Escalera-Zamudio, Anne Kathrine Runge, Julien Thézé, Daniel Streicker, Hannah K. Frank, Elizabeth Loza-Rubio, Shengmao Liu, Oliver A. Ryder, Jose Alfredo Samaniego Castruita, Aris Katzourakis, George Pacheco, Blanca Taboada, Ulrike Löber, Oliver G. Pybus, Yang Li, Edith Rojas-Anaya, Kristine Bohmann, Aldo Carmona Baez, Carlos F. Arias, Shiping Liu, Alex D. Greenwood, Mads F. Bertelsen, Nicole E. White, Michael Bunce, Guojie Zhang, Thomas Sicheritz-Pontén & M. P. Thomas Gilbert. Nature Ecology & Evolution (2018) doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0476-8