The evolution of vampires


Welcome to Tetrapod Zoology ver 2: and we start with blood-eating birds....

To everyone who has come over from the blog's former home on blogspot, thanks for coming on over, and to new readers: welcome. This is a blog devoted entirely to discussion of the evolution, history, diversity, biology and behaviour of tetrapods, and for the two or three of you that don't know, a tetrapod is any vertebrate animal that possesses four limbs, or descends from an ancestor that had four limbs. Essentially it's amphibians, mammals and reptiles (the latter including birds), and the close fossil relatives of these groups. The adjacent image, incidentally, has no relevance whatsoever with regard to this post, I just thought it was a cool photo. No prizes for working out what it is.

The invitation to join scienceblogs came in December 2006 and was officially finalized on 22nd January: the day after Tetrapod Zoology's first birthday. Wow. So from nothing to a scienceblogger is about a year - that's not bad. So, what's going to be different now that I'm blogging on a new site? To be honest, not much. I'm going to continue to do the same sort of thing I've been doing. However, there is now an incentive to produce more posts, so not only will I try and be more productive, but I will also try and break up long posts (viz, those of over 1000 words) into several smaller ones. This all means that there will be lots more stuff to look at so, if you like what I do, my advice is to visit, visit, and then visit again.

I'm not yet happy with the overall look of this site. I went to the effort of producing some nice banners but I can't yet work out how to them get up. I also have yet to add various stuff to the sidebar and so on. But I'll get there eventually. Evolution rules, after all.

Anyway, that's the preamble... on to the work. The last thing I was talking about - before Tetrapod Zoology's first birthday - was that evolution of vampires post. And I can't stand the incessant requests any longer, so let's get this out of the way. To begin with I will make it clear that I'm not just going to be talking about the sort of vampires you're familiar with (the desmodontine microbats), but, in fact, about passerines. Perching birds. Yes, those cute little African passerines that cling to the sides of giraffes and impalas - the oxpeckers - might not be the oh-so-helpful tick-birds that most people have assumed they are. They may, in fact, be avian vampires. But don't get too excited, as a lot of work remains to be done on the ecology of these birds, and controversy remains.


Though sometimes given their own 'family', Buphagidae, it's generally agreed that the oxpeckers are highly unusual starlings, perhaps related to the Asian starling Scissirostrum dubium* or the glossy starlings. There are two species, the Red-billed oxpecker Buphagus erythrorhynchus of eastern and southern Africa, and the more widespread Yellow-billed oxpecker B. africana. A few subspecies have been named for both species but it remains to be seen whether they are valid or not; a third species, the small, dark B. langi of the Congo Basin, was named in 1921 but is today regarded as synonymous with B. africanus [the adjacent image of a group of B. erythrorhynchus is borrowed from].

* Remind me one time to relate the curious tale of 'Gibsone's nondescript'.

Oxpeckers have stiff, almost woodpecker-like, tail feathers, and particularly large and strongly curved foot claws. They adopt a number of peculiar postures, including an erect penguin-like one when they alight next to another oxpecker and an open-winged sunbathing posture, seen sometimes as they cling to the side of a mammal. Many African mammals respond to oxpecker alarm calls and even domestic horses learn to recognise it. Oxpeckers will sometimes return to the body of a host mammal even after it's been shot dead. Best known for feeding on ticks, their diet is in fact far more diverse: they also eat flies, lice and mites, and very occasionally they may pick at carrion. There is one report of a Red-billed oxpecker eating fruit, but this is now regarded as erroneous. Significantly, they eat snot, ear-wax, tissue and blood. Lots of blood.

The conventional interpretation of oxpeckers is that they live in symbiosis with large hoofed mammals, providing a grooming service and in turn obtaining meals. In other words, they are avian 'cleaner fish'. However, when we look at the feeding behaviour and food preferences of oxpeckers, we see that things might not be so rosy. It's true that oxpeckers eat ticks - obviously a beneficial thing for the mammal that has the ticks - but, do they really do such a good job of tick removal, and is it really ticks that they're most interested in? Apparently not, as some studies strongly indicate that blood is their preferred food (Bezuidenhout & Stutterheim 1980, Weeks 1999). In fact oxpeckers spend about 85% of their foraging time feeding - not on ticks - but on blood, ear wax, and on material that they 'scissor' out of the fur. Weeks (2000) argued that this 'scissoring' is not for small ticks, as previously assumed, but for flakes of dead skin.

While they ingest blood by eating engorged ticks, they also obtain it by feeding on wounds, and because they keep wounds open, they may have a serious and detrimental affect on the health of the mammals they associate with.

i-4dbe556917a532bd8514346eea06da7a-oxpecker on impala.jpg

Wound-feeding in oxpeckers has long been known about; R. E. Moreau reported this in 1933 in the first ever proper study of oxpecker diet. Even better, Shelley's 1906 The Birds of Africa explains how Baker, the explorer, employed boys to chase oxpeckers away from pack animals, while two reports from the 1930s described how oxpeckers kept open the sores of pack mules and donkeys to the extent that the animals could no longer be used (Feare & Craig 1998, pp. 256-257). Goodwin (1963) allowed a captive Red-billed oxpecker to take blood from a wound on his hand and reported that, while the bird did not make any effort to enlarge the wound, it used pressure from its bill to increase the flow of blood. Olivier & Laurie (1974) described the interactions observed between oxpeckers and hippos; the oxpeckers 'fed entirely on tissue gleaned from wounds, often to the extreme discomfort of the hippo' (p. 169). Weeks (2000) also reported cases where oxpeckers were observed pecking at the place where a tick was attached to its host, yet making no attempt to dislodge the tick: the oxpecker was instead more interested in enlarging the wound [image above borrowed from].

Despite all this it was mostly assumed that the wound-feeding and blood-eating was an incidental consequence of the foraging for, and ingestion of, ticks. But in view of all of the new data it is tempting to wonder if oxpeckers are on their way to specialized vampirism. Do oxpeckers actually make wounds in order to feed on blood?

I have to stop there. More to come, not only on oxpeckers but on vampirism in other passerines, in bats and (supposedly) in pterosaurs.

Refs - -

Bezuidenhout, J. D. & Stutterheim, C. J. 1980. A critical evaluation of the role played by the red-billed oxpecker Buphagus erythrorhynchus in the biological control of ticks. Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Research 47, 51-75.

Feare, C. & Craig, A. 1998. Starlings and Mynas. Christopher Helm, London.

Goodwin, D. 1963. Some behaviour of a captive red-billed oxpecker. Avicultural Magazine 69, 113-117.

Olivier, R. C. D. & Laurie, W. A. 1974. Birds associating with hippopotamuses. Auk 91, 169-170.

Stutterheim, I. M., Bezuidenhout, J. D. & Elliott, E. G. R. 1988. Comparative feeding behaviour and food preferences of oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus and B. africanus) in captivity. Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Research 55, 173-179.

Weeks, P. 1999. Interactions between red-billed oxpeckers, Buphagus erythrorhynchus, and domestic cattle, Bos taurus, in Zimbabwe. Animal Behaviour 58, 1253-1259.

- . 2000. Red-billed oxpeckers: vampires or tickbirds? Behavioural Ecology 11, 154-160.

More like this

Hi, Darren; the new URL's easy to guess....

Given blood-feeding behavior in bats and, as demonstrated, birds,* I'm not particularly surprised that pterosaurs would have evolved blood-feeding behavior, too.

*Plus lots of flying insects.

Does flight make exploiting niche food sources feasible? Mobility would seem to be a useful characteristic in exploiting rare food sources, like carrion and fruit. Blood is analogous to that; a small flier can reach the blood much more easily than a small creeper.

With sauropods and other macroscale dinos wandering about, there probably is a lot of ecological room for small fliers to use them as larders. That most likely means pterosaurs.

Congratulations on the move, Darren! It's about time.
In their "Field Guide to Birds of Gambia and Senegal," Barlow, Wacher & Disley mentioned Red-billed Oxpeckers bringing their nestlings large quantities of fresh hamburger from nearby cattle.

Why, actually, did you move? I like the black background better... :-}

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 24 Jan 2007 #permalink

Thanks so much for having black letters on a white backround. That may preserve my vision for a few years longer. Now back to bloodsucking monkeys...

It IS still etc.-- now it's official!

By Steve Bodio (not verified) on 24 Jan 2007 #permalink

That's all very well, but what about the evolution of vampirism in actual vampires?

By Mike Taylor (not verified) on 24 Jan 2007 #permalink


First congrats on getting the invite.

I'm not sure you need to break up posts into smaller bits, because here each post can have its own page while on blogger it seems we got a whole bunch of posts on each page, which made them take a long time to load. With the ability to put stuff 'below the fold' as you've done with this one, there's no need to shorten the posts. One of the best things about your blog is the depth of the posts.

I must admit that until I found your comment about the first image, I was entertaining notions about giant blood-sucking mesonychids. But after a more careful reading, I'm far more fascinated/disturbed by the thought of snot-snarfing oxpeckers.

...which, in a nutshell, is why Tetrapod Zoology is such a compelling read. Congratulations on the new site, Darren!


Personally I would not be too surprised if we would a vampiric pterosaur. However, so far there is no evidence for one, and don't forget the pterosaur fossil record is not great. We have only 100 species or so, and mostly from marine or lacustrine environments.

The quadrupedal nature of pterosaurs would make them good 'clingers' for large dinosaurs (especially the rhamphorhynchoids) but perhaps the skin was too thick on your average dino for a pterosaur to be able to exploit it successfully.

Just a thought or two.

Having nosed around your new home (looked in your bathrrom cabinet, checked for leftovers in the fridge, gone through your DVD collection etc.), it looks like Tetrapod Zoology has finally got the recognition it deserves amongst lots of other great science blogs. So, well done and all that (presumably, the excellent pterosaur pictures often seen on Tetrapod Zoology 1 were a big factor in ScienceBlogs' decision to bring you on board).

Just one other thing: although I prefer the style of the old blog with a black background, this is much easier to read. Given that a lot of boffins have terrible eyesight (mine increasingly so), I recommend you keep it like this.

By Mark Witton (not verified) on 24 Jan 2007 #permalink

Congratulations on the move, not to mention the fascinating latest post!
I wouldn't be suprised if any haemophagous pterosaurs turned up, given that they were in the "bird" niche for a long time...


I really enjoy your blog, and always thought it was the best non-Science Blogs science blog. Welcome to the collective!

I too will miss the atmospheric black, but as long as we don't lose the giant killer eagles, British crypto-cats &c. I'll be happy.

I love Goodwin's experiment. For a while I would let mosquitos feed unmolested so I could watch them with a hand lens. Still, I don't know if I would have the cojones to let an oxpecker go to town on my hand (or pick snot out of my nose for that matter).

Congrats on the promotion!

Handsome birds those oxpeckers are. I had read about the blood and earwax, didn't know about the snot though, so it turns out they're not only a bit creepy, but they have no self-respect.
I have to say I'm rather fond of spicy blood sausage, so I can't help but admire the oxpecker.


It's easy to see how feeding on blood-filled ticks could lead to a taste also for ingesting blood from that very tick-wound; then, from any wound. But have these birds made the leap to creating wounds themselves? That would be interesting... and no bigger a leap, I suppose, than learning to peck through caps of milk bottles on doorsteps... (though I've always wondered how THAT behaviour came about).

Snot and ear wax, too - that's a revelation to me! Hmm... maybe beneficial (or alternatively, uncomfortable) for the host animal, but... is there much nutritional value in it?
I guess, given the total amount of nasal and aural exudation produced worldwide annually (volume/tonnage estimates, anyone?), I suppose it all has to go SOMEWHERE... ie most likely be 'eaten'/broken down/recycled by something. I'd no idea something as macroscopic as birds would go for it though.
Errmm... they don't build their NESTS with it, do they, by any chance?

By Graham King (not verified) on 29 Feb 2008 #permalink

PS... re your top photo... I once had a Subbuteo team which included a 'player' named Andrew.S.Archus.
(Understand, this particular local Subbuteo league was big on detail... the match reports, published in its newsletter, were something to see.)
(Can links get any more bizarre or obscure than this?)

By Graham King (not verified) on 29 Feb 2008 #permalink