Sunday, October 26, 2008


Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures

By Bill Schutt

Harmony. 325 pp. $25.95

There are real vampires in the world. But they weigh an ounce and a half or less. "Feeding on blood is a tough way to make a living," says bat expert Farouk Muradali. If the strapping vampire hunk in Stephenie Meyer's bestselling Twilight series were a bat, he'd have to drink half his weight in blood every night or starve to death.

Bill Schutt's Dark Banquet profiles some of the animal kingdom's dedicated bloodsuckers, from vampire bats and the dreaded candiru catfish to the not-so-dreaded vampire finch.

A bat specialist at Long Island University and an associate at the American Museum of Natural History, Schutt is an engaging writer. He explains that all carnivores are occasional blood-feeders (just think about your last T-bone). Blood is a convenient food, rich in nutrients and protein, and as long as there are vertebrates, there will never be a blood shortage. Over tens of thousands of years, some carnivores became sanguivores, specialists who eat only blood. Among them are vampire bats, candirus, leeches, ticks and bed bugs, and Schutt devotes sections to each group.

Real vampires may be small, but they're scary. In fact, their size is part of the problem: They're very hard to see, and they're very good at hiding. Fortunately, few sanguivores habitually drink human blood (bed bugs are an exception), but all will take a sip if they get a chance. They can't turn us into vampires, but they can kill us all the same: Their cross-species blood diet makes them very effective vectors for some of the worst diseases known to man, including malaria and bubonic plague. Still, they're not just villains. Blood anticoagulants from leeches and vampire bats are used in hospitals to reattach limbs and to treat strokes. Leeches have even been patented as a medical device.

Schutt packs the book full of such curious factoids, but his narrative is fitful. Although he cheerily breezes through grisly descriptions of the creatures' lives and feeding habits, his prose gets bogged down in detail, particularly on bats. And when explaining evolution, he becomes overly defensive. He's on surer footing when telling a story, like the medical history of bloodletting. (George Washington's attending physicians drained 80 ounces of his blood before he died.)

Though more for biology lovers than for "Buffy" fans, Dark Banquet has just enough of the macabre to justify its holiday tie-in. And for any method actor preparing to put on Dracula's cape for Halloween, reading it is an excellent way to get in character.

-- Alex Remington, a Post editorial aide.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company