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Blood-Eating Animals

by Dr. Dracula, as told to Ellen Lambeth

Dr. Dracula

Meet Dr. Dracula (seen at left). He’s here to introduce you to some of his blood-sucking friends!

Creeped out? Don’t be. Just listen in on this conversation. Maybe you’ll even decide bloodsuckers are cool, not creepy!

Got Blood? - RR layout

Dr. Dracula, you’re a vampire, right?
Yep, and proud of it! Everybody knows vampires want to suck your—er, SOMEone’s—blood. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re bad. For some creatures, feeding on blood is how we stay alive.

Take the vampire bat (above), for instance. Compare its teeth with mine, and you can see right away we must be blood relatives. (Sorry—lame humor!) Maybe those sharpies look spooky to you. But to the bat, they’re just razor-sharp tools for making a painless puncture on a “victim.” Then the bat laps up the flowing droplets with its tongue. The “blood donor” in the small photo above, lower right is a sleeping horse. It doesn’t even feel the bat at the “blood bank.” Sleeping humans are also fair game, but vampire bats usually go for other large mammals or birds.

Got Blood? - RR layout

Do all bats eat blood?
No way! Out of 1,100 species of bats, only three are bloodfeeders. And they all live in Mexico, Central America, and much of South America. Feeling better now?

What’s the point in eating blood, anyway?
Good question. The truth is, blood can be a good meal plan. It’s mostly water, but it also has proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Best of all,there’s plenty of it around, it’s pretty easy to find, and there’s not much competition for it!

Vampire Vocabulary

  • hematophagy (hee-muh-TOFF-uh-jee): “the act of feeding on blood”
  • sanguivore (SANG-gwih-vore): “eater of blood”

Yikes! It’s not even safe underwater?
I guess you just noticed the fish above, top left. Its strange attachment is a sea lamprey. This hanger-on is an eel-like fish with a taste for blood and other body juices. It has no jaws—just a toothy disk and a file-like tongue. It uses these strange mouthparts to catch hold, hang on, and scrape parasitic isopods away. Sounds yucky, but the lamprey’s mouth looks pretty— like a flower (above left, small photo). There’s another kind of underwater attachment. See it behind the eye on the colorful fish above, top right? That’s a parasitic isopod (pair-uh-SITik EYE-suh-pod). Isopods are tiny lobster relatives. A more familiar kind is the harmless roly-poly bug (or pill bug) you might find under a log. But this isopod attaches to fish with its claws and draws out their blood.

Don’t tell me there are blood-sucking birds, too!
There aren’t any birds that eat ONLY blood. But the sharpbeaked ground finch above, lower right from the Galapagos Islands is one bird that will take blood as an occasional side dish. The feathered phantom also goes by the name vampire finch. (No big surprise there!) Like other kinds of finches, this bird usually eats seeds. But it adds to its diet by pecking wounds on birds called boobies. Then the finch sips the blood that oozes out. Cheap eats!

Got Blood? - RR layout 

Why is the big bear (above, top left) crying?
Those aren’t teardrops. They’re ticks—all filled up with the bear’s blood.

What’s the tick (above left, small photo) doing?
That’s a sheep tick—a European relative of the deer tick that you may have heard about. It’s hanging out at the edge of a leaf, just waiting to hitch a ride on the next “bloodmobile.”

What does that mean?
The tick is on the lookout for a host: in this case, a victim it can get a blood meal from. When a tick senses a sheep or other host approaching, it scrambles up to a “launch pad” and waves its front legs so it can grab hold or drop on board. Then it “burrows” its sharp mouthparts into the skin and starts sucking.

What is that insect (above, middle) up to?
It’s a cat flea doing a somersault over some furry body— and not necessarily that of a cat. Cat fleas are the most common fleas in the United States, and their bites can make almost ANYbody itch! They also can jump about 7 inches straight up. (That would be like you bounding over a 25-story building!) Super-leaping makes it easy for this small fry to get up on a high host. And with its sideways-flat body, a flea can easily slip between all those hairs to get to a choice spot.

OK, that is just GROSS!
Oh, you mean the leech (above, top right) right stuck on a fish’s eyeball? Yeah, that’s disgusting even to me. But check out the tiger leech (above, lower right). You’ll have to admit that that’s a handsome- looking creature. It’s literally hanging out—waiting for something blood-filled to drop onto, so it can become blood-filled itself. Leeches are related to earthworms, and there are about 650 different species. Some live on land, while others live in water. Some attack and eat smaller creatures, but most are basic blood-suckers.

How does a leech get a blood meal?
It has a suction cup on each end of its body to hold on to its host. Rows of tiny teeth are in the front suction cup. Once those teeth saw open a wound, a chemical in the leech’s saliva (spit) keeps the blood flowing. Like ticks, leeches swell up from their blood meals and then finally drop off their hosts.

Got Blood? - RR layout

How to avoid becoming Dinner
Scared about losing some blood of your own? Don’t worry. You probably would never meet most of these blood-suckers. Either they don’t live in the same place you do, or they aren’t interested in human blood. The ones that cause people the most trouble are fleas, ticks, lice, mosquitoes, and, yes, bed bugs. Some of these pests can spread serious diseases, while others (such as bed bugs) just make you miserable. 

A doctor can suggest ways to prevent getting bloodsuckers on you. And a vet can provide ideas for controlling them on pets. Otherwise, the best solution is to avoid the times and places the pests might be active. There are many ways to stay safe and still have fun outside!

What’s on that giant blue comb above, top left?
It’s a head louse. It’s actually quite tiny—barely visible. That’s just a magnified view so you can see it better. Head lice (the plural of “louse” is “lice”) are wingless insects that live among human hairs. There, they suck blood and lay their eggs (called nits). Lice can’t fly or leap, but they really know how to get around. If you have one “lousy” friend, you probably have more. In fact, does your head feel a little itchy now?

Is that a mosquito (above, main photo)?
Yes—super-magnified. Can you make out the bloodsucking tube stuck in the host’s skin? And the bloodfilled stomach? I’ll bet you didn’t know that only the females bite. They need the protein in a blood meal to form their eggs.

Do you have any parting words?
Of course: “Night-night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite!”

Check out these tips for keeping familiar blood-sucking insects away from you.

Rangers: We thank biologist Bill Schutt for his help with this article. He also wrote a book called Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures (Harmony Books, 2008). —R.R.

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