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.