The overwhelming majority of bats are friends of humanity. They gobble up the insects that bite us and ruin our crops. They pollinate flowers and they replant forests by spreading seeds around. But as agriculture overtakes rain forests and jungles, humans have come into conflict with one bat species: the common vampire bat.
In Latin America, vampire bats drink the blood of livestock. Very rarely, these bats contract rabies. Before they die, they can spread the deadly virus to pigs, chickens, cows — and even humans. The disease costs farmers in Latin America $30 million every year and kills dozens of people. In March of this year, a man in Brazil reportedly died of rabies after being bitten by a vampire bat.
Ranchers, whose livelihoods are threatened, want the government to wipe out this threat. But is extermination the best course of action? Would the world be better without vampire bats? Is there anything that makes them worth saving?
NPR's science YouTube channel Skunk Bear is all about tackling tricky questions. So we headed down to Panama to try and better understand the problem and this seemingly sinister species.
In a winding limestone cavern, we encountered wild vampire bats. They have amazing powers — not just razor-sharp fangs, but a nose with infrared heat sensors that can detect the warmth of flowing blood beneath the skin. They don't just fly, they use their wings to execute an awkward but effective gallop on the ground.
In the small town just outside the mouth of the bat cave, we met the people and animals they prey upon.
And in a shed on the campus of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, we saw another side of the bats. Scientist Gerry Carter has spent years documenting how they treat each other in a very human way — hugs are a big thing. These little monsters regularly save the lives of their friends by sharing food.
Watch our video to learn more about this surprising species. And submit your own science questions to Skunk Bear here.