591: Dark Banquet by Bill Schutt

by Gerard

591.53: Schutt, Bill. Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures. New York: Harmony Books, 2008. 293 pp. ISBN 978-0-307-38112-5.

Because we have to fit all of the sciences into the 500s, zoology has to make do with just the 590s. If you had a zoological library (which they do at many zoos), most of your books would have a 59x call number, making the whole system a bit useless. Most of the time, they categorize books by how they fall on the phylogenetic tree–mammal books over here, bird books over there, fishes in one section, and so on. But for a general library, the 590s are okay. Today’s book is about sanguivorous (blood-eating) behavior in animals. Since it’s a complete topic dealing with multiple animal phyla, it gets 591–Specific topics in the natural history of animals. 591.5 is animal behavior; 591.53 is predation.

Bill Schutt, in Dark Banquet, tries to shed a little more light on the universe of blood-eating animals. His primary research area is vampire bats and their biology and evolution, but while studying them he wondered about all the other animals out there that feast on blood, human or otherwise. Naturally, the first third of the book is on his beloved nocturnal feeders, but the areas devoted to leeches, ticks, mites, bed bugs, and even vampire finches are interesting nonetheless. Of particular note is the short but chilling bit on the candiru, an Amazonian catfish that feeds on other fish, but has, on extremely rare occasions, found its way up an unsuspecting urinating person’s urethra and died there.

Schutt spends a wonderful amount of time on the science behind all this behavior, taking much needed detours into evolutionary development (known as “evo-devo” in the trade) and the composition of mammalian blood and the long tradition of human blood-letting. All this serves as a grand context for the animals in the book, showing that even here scientists are looking at areas of study from a “complex systems” standpoint, and not just singularities of similarity. It was sad to hear that George Washington died from complications due to illness and severe blood-letting (80 ounces were drained before he died).

He also tries here to set the record straight on a lot of public misconceptions on blood-eating critters. First, there are only three species of vampire bats (the rest are harmless). Second, bed bugs are a real concern, but there are a lot of simple things you can do about them (one of them is not freaking out all the time). And third, humanity and the global ecosystem need these creatures to help sustain the planet. So, don’t go around killing them before we get a chance to learn all we can. I’ll step off my soapbox now.

This was a fun book on many scientific areas, and it reads very fast. An average reader could get through this in a single day (5-8 hours).