What came first, the vampire or the bat?

A vampire bat.

Have you ever wondered, “What came first, the vampire or the bat?”

Since we were kids, we have watched movies and heard horror stories about vampires - the fabled creatures that feast on human blood – that turn into bats in order to find unsuspecting prey.

According to the Florida Bat Conservation Centre, the notion of vampires “has existed since ancient times in folklore and mythology of most cultures in Europe and elsewhere.”

However, when Spanish explorers in Central and South America found “blood-lapping” bats, they labeled them as “vampire bats,” because they lived off of blood, unlike any other bat species.

Even today, vampire bats are found only in Mexico and parts of Central and South America, and feed primarily on livestock, not humans.

Vampire bats are small, approximately the size of a bag of M&Ms, and drink teaspoon-sized meals from other animals.

Vampire bats bite the animals while they are sleeping (which doesn't usually wake up the animal) and then laps up the blood with its tiny tongue, similar to a cat drinking milk.

Because of its nocturnal behavior and appearance, bats have been associated with mystery and the supernatural long before Irish writer Bram Stoker's “Dracula” was printed.

For example, a bat-like vampire creature appeared as an illustration in the novel, “Varney the Vampire,” which was published 50 years before “Dracula.”

But, it was Stoker's novel that highlighted the fictitious connection between vampires and bats.

When working on the novel in the 1890s, Stoker came across a newspaper clipping discussing vampire bats, which prompted one of his characters to say, “One of those big bats that they call 'vampires' had got at her during the night…and there wasn't enough blood in her to let her stand up.”

Stoker also invented the idea that vampires could shapeshift, or turn into bats, wolves, and mist, and drain humans of their blood.

The bat-vampire association found its way into the movies in 1931, when Universal Studios released “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi.

Since then, bats and vampires have become synonymous with one another and with Halloween.

However, it's important to note that out of the 1,100 species of bats throughout the world, only three are vampire bats. The remaining 1,097 bat species eat insects, fruit, nectar, and pollen (a few also eat fish and frogs).

There are 17 bat species in Virginia, 14 of which are considered resident. All of Virginia's bats are insectivorous, or feed on night flying insects, many of which are considered pests.

One of Virginia's bats, called the “Little Brown Bat,” can eat 600 - 1,200 mosquito-sized insects every hour. In fact, most insect-eating bats eat their body weight in insects each night.

A colony of 150 Big Brown Bats, also found in Virginia, can protect farmers from up to 18 million or more rootworms each year.

Fruit bats are also essential to our lives and environment. Bats bring us over 450 commercial products and 80 medicines through pollination and seed dispersal.

In fact, over 95 percent of rainforest regrowth comes from seeds spread by fruit bats. Important plants, such as bananas, avocados, dates, figs, cashews, and mango, depend on bats for survival.

Sadly, bat populations are declining worldwide at an alarming rate.

Biologists believe that this is because of misconceptions about bats, communication towers and turbines, White Nose Syndrome, a fungus which has appeared in 2006 and has wiped out a lot of the hibernating bats in the northeast, and property development.

“Most bats living in Virginia prefer to roost in mature or dead trees or in caves. However, many bats are forced to take up residence in human dwellings or other buikdings due to loss of these types of habitat,” reported Bat World of Hampton Roads.

“Also, human disturbance in caves during the winter can force bats to burn up energy during their normal hibernation cycle, causing the bats to starve to death before insect populations re-appear in the spring and provide a food source.”

Because of these factors, half of all the bats in the U.S., and 60 percent of bats in the world, are listed as rare, threatened, or endangered.

Three bats in Virginia, the Gray Bat, Indiana Bat, and Virginia Big-eared Bat, are federally endangered, while the Rafinesque's Big-eared Bat, is state endangered.

Residents of Virginia are encouraged to make or buy bat houses and place them in the yard.

Remember, when building and/or installing a bat house, specific requirements should be met - such as the dimensions and location (depends on sunlight) - in order to attract bat colonies.

“Bat houses are a perfect way to get involved in conservation. A bat house in your backyard provides bats with a much needed, safe place to live,” Bat World of Hampton Roads reported.

“They will also do you the return favor of eating insects around the area.”

Want to help? Here are five easy ways to help out the Bat World of Hampton Roads:

Donate a Costco gift card: Costco gift cards enable the organization to buy lettuce (a favorite of all of the fruit bats), as well as fruit, paper towels, cleaning supplies, trash bags, detergent, and other office supplies.

Donate empty ink cartridges: Send your empty ink cartridges to Bat World so they can turn them in for money to buy mealworms for the insect eating bats. To donate mealworms directly, please call Sunshine Mealworms at 1-800-322-1100 and ask to credit the account of the Bat World rescue center of your choice.

Donate a Wal-Mart gift card: Wal-Mart gift cards enable Bat World to buy items for the orphaned bats they rescue, such as: goat's milk and other formula supplies, foam eye shadow applicator tips for nursing, medicine droppers, heating pads, wash cloths, and materials to make soft padded pouches to comfort the motherless babies.

Buy your next phone through Phones for Good: Purchase you next cell phone through Phones for Good.com and the Bat World Sanctuary will received up to $50 in donations. The funding will help the organization buy melons, papayas, mangoes, and other fruits for the fruit bats. Go to www.phonesforgood.com to shop, and select Bat World Sanctuary as your cause.

Donate a Petsmart gift card: Petsmart gift cards enable Bat World to buy vitamin supplements that go into the blended insect meals they hand-feed to the rescued bats that can't eat on their own. Petsmart also carried toys and enrichment items for the bats.

For more information on Virginia bats, bat houses, bat safety, and the Bat World of Hampton Roads, visit: www.batworld.org.

Information courtesy Florida Bat Conservation Centre and Bat World Hampton Roads

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.