12 Vampire Animals That Drink Blood

A vampire bat on a log.

Uwe Schmidt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Vampires have an enduring allure in human culture, and animals that practice hematophagy — consuming blood for food — are the likely source.

The main ingredient in blood is water, which means it usually can't provide enough energy for big-bodied hunters. And since most animals keep their blood closely guarded, the thousands of real-world vampire species, most of them bugs, must rely on stealth and persistence for even the tiniest sip. Read on to dispel any myths and fantasies about the true nature of vampiric creatures, starting with these 12.

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Vampire Bat

Vampire bats hiss at the camera.

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Bats are a staple of vampire lore, but not many of them actually walk the walk: Of the roughly 1,000 known bat species, only three drink blood. Two of those — the hairy-legged vampire bat and the white-winged vampire bat — mainly prey on birds, while the common vampire bat is a bit more versatile.

Vampire bats evolved to drink the blood of a variety of Central and South American wildlife, and mainly feeds on cattle, horses, and other livestock. This diet likely helped it avoid extinction, as farms and cities eroded its former variety of prey. A bite from a vampire bat alone isn't dangerous, but it can spread rabies, which poses a public-health threat across much of its habitat. One study found that vampire bats were responsible for around 500 cattle deaths in Peru in one year alone.

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Candirú

Dr. Peter Henderson, PISCES Conservation Ltd./Wikimedia Commons.

The Amazon and Orinoco rivers are the only known habitats for this tiny, parasitic catfish, which attacks other fish by swimming into their gills — and is rumored to be able to attack a person by swimming into his or her urethra. But while it's true that there are many local myths and oral histories in South America about the horrors of a candirú attack, these claims have since been debunked by scientists. 

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Female Mosquito

A mosquito after landing on a human.

Paul Starosta / Getty Images

While they've been behind more human deaths than any other animal, mosquitoes themselves are actually pretty harmless. Males eat a vegan, nectar-based diet, and although egg-laying females drink blood to get protein, even they don't cause much trouble besides red, itchy welts. The real risk from mosquitoes is the diseases they carry around from host to host.

Female mosquitoes transmit a wide range of diseases among their hosts, ranging from malaria — a parasite that kills more than one million people a year — to dengue fever, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. The dangers posed by these and other mosquito-borne diseases are expected to grow as temperatures and rainfall increase in much of the world, including parts of the U.S.

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Tick

A tick up close on human skin.

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Ticks are some of the most prolific vampires on Earth, capable of drinking up to 600 times their body weight in blood thanks to a stretchable outer shell. They prefer warm, wooded areas near water, and while they rely on a range of tactics to find food — some wait in tall grass, while others hunt for hosts — they all use similarly vicious teeth, claws, and feeding tubes to dig in once they find it.

A tick bite won't turn you into a vampire, but it can spread illnesses like Lyme disease, so act quickly if you're bitten; even after removing the tick with tweezers and killing it, you may want to keep it for a few days as evidence in case you get sick.

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Lamprey

A lamprey's mouth.

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Lampreys are ancient, elongated fish that look more like aliens than vampires (or fish, for that matter). They have no jaws, no scales, and spend most of their lives as harmless larvae. It can take up to seven years for one to reach adulthood, but once it does, it becomes a monster: Adult lampreys latch onto a host with their hooklike teeth and gulp down its blood as it swims.

Lampreys live in fresh and salty water worldwide, but while they already terrorize their own habitats, they can be even worse as an invasive species. When manmade canals let Atlantic sea lampreys invade the Great Lakes in the 1800s, they outcompeted smaller lake lampreys and decimated native fish, some of which are now extinct. They only attack humans when starved, however — a rare problem for such successful hunters.

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Bedbug

A bedbug crawls on human skin.

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As "nest parasites," bedbugs haven't had much trouble following humans over the millennia from caves and huts to houses and hotels. They hide in dark, secluded areas during the day — in mattresses, behind walls, under floors — and come out at night to drink blood. An outbreak can spread quickly, since females lay up to five eggs a day and 500 in a lifetime.

Pesticides like DDT nearly wiped out U.S. bedbugs in the 1940s, but they've recently come bouncing back — and not just in tightly packed tenements or cheap motels. From retail stores to skyscrapers and suburban homes, Americans are increasingly besieged by bedbugs. They're not known to spread disease, but they can spur anxiety and anguish thanks to their painful bites and persistent infestations.

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Kissing Bug

A kissing bug on a leaf.

Paul Starosta / Getty Images

Their name may not sound very scary, but "kissing bugs" can be even worse than bedbugs. They're bigger and more aggressive and, more importantly, often bite people's faces to drink their blood. They attack while you're asleep, but unlike bedbugs, they can also spread disease — namely the parasite that causes Chagas disease.

Chagas is most common in Latin America, and while U.S. outbreaks are rare, kissing bugs have still caused trouble in Southwestern states like Arizona and Texas. Aside from spreading Chagas, kissing bug bites can spur allergic reactions including swollen-shut eyes, blistered skin, breathing difficulties, and even seizures. The best way to control kissing bugs and other so-called "assassin bugs" is to close any entry points to a house, such as gaps under doors, windows, and walls.

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Leech

A leech stuck into human skin.

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Leeches are related to earthworms, but most are a bit more vicious than their dirt-dwelling cousins. Some are ambush predators, lying in wait for victims like slugs and snails, while others are blood-sucking parasites.

The best-known species is the European medical leech, which has been used in human health care for millennia. It fell out of favor in the 1800s along with bloodletting, but it's making a comeback now as a way to control blood flow in some medical procedures. Since it injects anticoagulants as it bites, a leech can reduce clotting, relieve pressure and spur circulation after surgery. The blood thinner hirudin is taken from leeches' salivary glands, and synthetic versions have now been made with its chemical blueprints. Leeches are also used in traditional medicine in India, where many believe they remove tainted blood from the body.

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Flea

A close-up shot of a flea in fur.

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Some bloodsuckers flee after stealing a meal, but not fleas. Rather than commuting to and from a host like mosquitoes or bedbugs, fleas often just hang out in their victim's fur. They're well-suited to this lifestyle, thanks to thin bodies that help them slink through fur, hard shells that make them difficult to crush, and spring-loaded legs that let them jump up to seven inches high and 13 inches across. In human terms, that would be like leaping 250 feet high and 450 feet across.

Different flea species target specific hosts — there's a dog flea, cat flea, rat flea, and even human flea — although they're not averse to mixing it up, as many pet owners can attest to. That's how rat fleas spread bubonic plague around Europe during the Middle Ages, and still do in some parts of the world.

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Louse

A louse up close in strands of hair.

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Like fleas, lice are parasitic bugs that live on their hosts, but they're even more specialized — lice target not only certain animals, but certain parts of certain animals. Take the three species that bite people, for example: head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. Each one preys on its own distinct niche in the human body, often swarming one area while virtually absent from everywhere else.

The problem of head lice in schools has given that species more notoriety, but body lice are the only ones that spread disease. Typhus, trench fever, and relapsing fever can all be transmitted by body lice, although in the U.S. they're mostly found among houseless people or others who don't have access to regular bathing or changes of clean clothes.

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Vampire Finch

A vampire finch on the shore in the Galapagos Islands.

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The Galapagos Islands' 13 finch species were so crucial to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution that they've been dubbed "Darwin's finches." But more recent voyages have shown that a few of them are Dracula's finches, too.

The sharp-beaked ground finch normally eats seeds, and often abandons arid areas for more hospitable spots during the dry season. But one of its subspecies stays on two arid islands all year, supplementing its diet of seeds with a feast of blood. Known as "vampire finches," they have a unique strategy for stealing blood from seabirds: They pick at wounds on the larger birds' backs, just enough to keep the injuries open and the blood flowing, but not so much that their hosts fight back or fly away.

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Vampire Squid

A juvenile vampire squid deep underwater.

NOAA/MBARI / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

With a Latin name that means "vampire squid from hell," it's safe to say Vampyroteuthis infernalis made a big impression on the first people who saw it. Scientists have even given it its own biological order, Vampyromorphida, and deservedly so — the vampire squid is one of the most unique and mysterious animals on Earth, even if it's not technically a vampire.

It lives as deep as 3,000 feet down in the ocean, and is thus rarely seen in its natural setting. It's tiny, often just six inches long, but has eyes like a large dog's; in fact, it has the biggest eye-to-body-size ratio of any animal, helping it see in the dim abyss. Like many deep-sea denizens, it can also glow and change colors, a trick known as bioluminescence. It doesn't drink blood, instead earning its name for the capelike webbing it wields as a shield.