- What humans can learn about kindness - from vampire bats! They've always had a bit of an image problem. But Dracula's little chums have a secret caring side
The world would be a much happier place if humans were more like vampire bats. It’s their unselfishness I’m talking about: the free giving of something you need but are prepared to surrender to another.
We humans like to think that altruism in any form is uniquely human: a real and above all moral division between us and the rest of the animal kingdom. Vampire bats contradict this view.
All kinds of legends have built up around this pint-sized creature of the night, but one bit at least is true: that they do actually drink blood. There are three species: the white-winged vampire and the hairy-legged vampire prefer the blood of birds, and are adept at clambering through the branches to reach nests and nestlings.
Vampires are around 4in long, with a wingspan of 7in or so. They are adept on the ground, crawling with agile speed to reach a target and search out a convenient blood vessel.
This sounds as if all the odds favour the bats, but this is not so. It’s common for a vampire bat to go through a night without a meal; within three days it will have starved to death. Blood-hunting is a skill that improves over time: year-old bats will fail one night in three; experienced animals fail only one night in ten.
All the same, failure is a fact of life for even the best blood-hunters.
A bat who has failed to find blood in a night’s flying will beg a meal from a neighbour. From a friend, we would say, if we weren’t so terrified of sounding anthropomorphic.
The friend will then regurgitate blood, thus sharing a meal. Under this system, females have been known to live for up to 15 years.
Reciprocal altruism is still altruism; obviously this is a system that works on a mutual back-scratching basis.
Human society depends on the small kindnesses that you perform as a matter of course and that you expect to be performed for you in turn. But it is not just humans who are humane.