For centuries, blood feeders have inhabited our nightmares and horror stories, as well as the shadowy realms of scientific knowledge. In Dark Banquet, zoologist Bill Schutt takes readers on an entertaining voyage into the world of some of nature’s strangest creatures—the sanguivores. Using a sharp eye and mordant wit, Schutt makes a remarkably persuasive case that vampire bats, leeches, ticks, bed bugs, and other vampires are as deserving of our curiosity as warmer and fuzzier species are—and that many of them are even worthy of conservation.
Schutt takes us from rural Trinidad to the jungles of Brazil to learn about some of the most reviled, misunderstood, and marvelously evolved animals on our planet: vampire bats. Only recently has fact begun to disentangle itself from fiction concerning these remarkable animals, and Schutt delves into the myths and misconceptions surrounding them.
Examining the substance that sustains nature’s vampires, Schutt reveals just how little we actually knew about blood until well into the twentieth century. We revisit George Washington on his deathbed to learn how ideas about blood and the supposedly therapeutic value of bloodletting, first devised by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, survived into relatively modern times. Schutt also tracks the history of medicinal leech use. Once employed by the tens of millions to drain perceived excesses of blood, today the market for these ancient creatures is booming once again—but for very different reasons.
Among the other blood feeders we meet in these pages are bed bugs, or “ninja insects,” which are making a creepy resurgence in posh hotels and well-kept homes near you. In addition, Dark Banquet details our dangerous and sometimes deadly encounters with ticks, chiggers, and mites (the latter implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder—currently devastating honey bees worldwide). Then there are the truly weird—vampire finches. And if you thought piranha were scary, some people believe that the candiru (or willy fish) is the best reason to avoid swimming in the Amazon.
Enlightening, alarming, and appealing to our delight in the bizarre, Dark Banquet peers into a part of the natural world to which we are, through our blood, inextricably linked.
In this salmagundi of abstruse science, informative history and engaging personal anecdotes, Schutt's fascination for sanguivores goes a long way toward disarming, while defining, our primal fear of creatures that feed on blood. For all their fearsome rep@utation, only three of 1,100 bat species savor blood, and one of those preys exclusively on chickens. The author doesn't make sanguivores entirely cuddly: part two opens with the horrifying theory that George Washington was likely bled to death by ill-informed doctors and eager leeches, and includes an account of the first dog-to-dog transfusion in 1666 (the first successful human transfusion was in 1901). In part three, Schutt surveys other blood feeders: leeches currently making a comeback in modern medicine, pesky bedbugs and chiggers, and potentially lethal mosquitoes and ticks. One oddity (and typically fascinating tidbit) in the sanguivore world is the vampire finch of the Galapagos, which Schutt theorizes is evolving before scientists' eyes, turning to blood-sipping when other nourishment is in short supply. Passages that focus on the science can be a slog, but are quickly alleviated by sections that are witty and illuminating.