By Justin Cox

Killeen Daily Herald

BELTON – Vampires are real. So is Dracula.

No, really.

Just ask Dr. Kenneth Johnson, retired University of Mary Hardin-Baylor biology professor. He believes in vampires. He's even seen them. Vampire bats, that is.

Bats, spiders and other creepy crawlers of the night were the subject of Johnson's presentation Monday at the Townsend Memorial Library on the campus of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. In the presentation, Johnson spoke about the origins of Halloween, the myth and lore surrounding it, as well as many of the commonly held beliefs about bats and their native activities and habitats.

According to Johnson, ancient peoples held ceremonial bonfires to summon the spirits of the departed. The light would inevitably attract insects, and bats would come to feast on them. There are bats that feast on the blood of animals, he said, but the vast majority of bats have other sources of food.

Dracula on the other hand, or Count Vladamir Dracula, was a powerful nobleman in Rumania, not Transylvania, who lived around the 4th century A.D. According to Johnson, Dracula entered the lore of Halloween when a priest came to visit him in the night, and refused to show the proper respect to the count's status by removing his hat, citing his devotion to God as his only master. Dracula, unimpressed with the priest's candor and dedication, had his guards screw the priest's hat into his head so that he may never forget whom it was he disrespected.

Dracula was not a vampire, Johnson said, and he didn't drink blood. And of the 33 species of bat in Texas, only one is considered a vampire. The largest known bat cave in the state is located just outside San Antonio, where Johnson says that more than 250 tons of insects are devoured every night by the more than 40 million bats residing in the cave.

Johnson said bats' appetites vary as much as their size. There are no flightless bats, as there are flightless birds, but there are bats that fish, bats that eat fruit, bats that eat scorpions, bats that eat flying insects (the most common) and of course, a few bats that drink blood.

"Compared to most bats," Johnson said, "vampires have it pretty easy. While most bats feast throughout the night, vampires only hunt for about two hours."

The way they do it, he said, is that they use their sharp, canine-like teeth to make a small hole in their victim. Then they slobber their saliva, which contains a very active anti-coagulant, all over the wound, so the blood doesn't clot, and the bat can feast to its heart's content.

Johnson said that though there have been documented cases of people dying from vampire bat bites, it's exceedingly rare. Most bats don't even carry rabies, another commonly held misconception.

But Johnson did give one last piece of advice: if you see a sick bat, just leave it alone. You can never tell when the hunger might strike...

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