Surviving on blood alone is no picnic. But a handful of genetic tweaks may have helped vampire bats evolve to become the only mammal known to feed exclusively on the stuff.
These bats have developed a range of physiological and behavioral strategies to exist on a blood-only diet. The genetic picture behind this sanguivorous behavior, however, is still blurry. But 13 genes that the bats appear to have lost over time could underpin some of the behavior, researchers report March 25 in Science Advances.
“Sometimes losing genes in evolutionary time frames can actually be adaptive or beneficial,” says Michael Hiller, a genomicist now at the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research in Frankfurt.
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Hiller and his colleagues pieced together the genetic instruction book of the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) and compared it with the genomes of 26 other bat species, including six from the same family as vampire bats. The team then searched for genes in D. rotundus that had either been lost entirely or inactivated through mutations.
Of the 13 missing genes, three had been previously reported in vampire bats. These genes are associated with sweet and bitter taste receptors in other animals, meaning vampire bats probably have a diminished sense of taste — all the better for drinking blood. The other 10 lost genes are newly identified in the bats, and the researchers propose several ideas about how the absence of these genes could support a blood-rich diet.
Some of the genes help to raise levels of insulin in the body and convert ingested sugar into a form that can be stored. Given the low sugar content of blood, this processing and storage system may be less active in vampire bats and the genes probably aren’t that useful anymore. Another gene is linked in other mammals to gastric acid production, which helps break down solid food. That gene may have been lost as the vampire bat stomach evolved to mostly store and absorb fluid.
One of the other lost genes inhibits the uptake of iron in gastrointestinal cells. Blood is low in calories yet rich in iron. Vampire bats must drink up to 1.4 times their own weight during each feed, and, in doing so, ingest a potentially harmful amount of iron. Gastrointestinal cells are regularly shed in the vampire bat gut, so by losing that gene, the bats may be absorbing huge amounts of iron and quickly excreting it to avoid an overload — an idea supported by previous research.
One lost gene could even be linked to vampire bats’ remarkable cognitive abilities, the researchers suggest. Because the bats are susceptible to starvation, they share regurgitated blood and are more likely to do so with bats that previously donated to themselves (SN: 11/19/15). Vampire bats also form long-term bonds and even feed with their friends in the wild (SN: 10/31/19; SN: 9/23/21). In other animals, this gene is involved in breaking down a compound produced by nerve cells that is linked to learning and memory — traits thought to be necessary for the vampire bats’ social abilities.
“I think there are some compelling hypotheses there,” says David Liberles, an evolutionary genomicist at Temple University in Philadelphia who wasn’t involved in the study. It would be interesting to see if these genes were also lost in the other two species of vampire bats, he says, as they feed more on the blood of birds, while D. rotundus prefers to imbibe from mammals.
Whether the diet caused these changes, or vice versa, isn’t known. Either way, it was probably a gradual process over millions of years, Hiller says. “Maybe they started drinking more and more blood, and then you have time to better adapt to this very challenging diet.”