When we think of bats, most of us think of vampire bats and get spine-tingling chill and nerve-wrecking fear in the process. But did you know that there are only three species of bats which source of food is blood and the rest eat mostly insects, fruits and pollen?

And odd as it may seem, although there are some reports of humans being bit by bats, the occurrence is far less than the number of hidden cases of bats victimized by another vampire – one that almost never leaves.

Meet the bat fly – flattened, spiderlike flies seldom with no eyes and wings, and highly specialized for a nearly permanent ectoparasitic relationship with their hosts, the Chiroptera (bats). Bat flies belong to the Family Nycteribiidae of the insect Order Diptera.

“Bat flies suck blood from bats for their meals, so we call them bat ‘vampires’,” James DV. Alvarez, research associate at the UPLB Museum of Natural History said in an interview.

Bat flies are real parasites and most species are highly host-specific, meaning a bat fly will prefer living off a certain species of bats.

“These bloodsuckers are seldom collected and studied,” said Alvarez, who mentioned that only a handful of researchers in the past have surveyed Philippine nycteribiids. “So far, the latest complete review of these insects has been made by the late Prof. Luisito S. Cuy from 1980 to 1981,” Alvarez added.

Alvarez, along with Museum curators Dr. Ireneo L. Lit, Jr. and Prof. Phillip A. Alviola recently published a new checklist of the Nycteribiid species known from the Philippines with the known distribution and bat host species. The article was published on Checklist (The Journal of Biodiversity Data), a Scopus-indexed journal.

“We updated the last checklist because during our 2011 bat survey in Mt. Makiling, we observed quite a number of bat fly species parasitizing on collected bats,” Alvarez said. The team was able to collect and study 10 species of bat flies from the bats.

In their article, the authors reported that the bat fly species Eucampsipoda philippinensis Ferris, Cyclopodia garrula Maa, C. horsfieldi de Mejeire, Phthiridium brachyacantha (Theodor) and Penicillidia acuminata Theodor were found on bats other than those which have been previously known to serve as their specific hosts.

“We have also documented C. garrula, which has been previously recorded only from Mindanao, for the first time on Luzon Island. The new host and distribution records updates the checklist of 20 species of nycteribiid bat flies which have been recorded in the Philippines.

Studying bat flies and their complex relationships with bats may seem uninteresting to many. But Alvarez is quick to point that the presence of bat flies on bats in a certain locality may play a role in the future management of diseases that can be passed from animals to humans.

“We have to look at bat flies more seriously because they feed on hosts which are known to carry diverse and virulent disease-causing pathogens,” Alvarez said.

Prof. Phillip Alviola, MNH Curator for Small Non-volant Mammals added that bats are major reservoirs of zoonotic viruses worldwide, most high-profile of which cause respiratory syndromes, hemorrhagic fever, rabies and other deadly illnesses.

Alviola said that the number of emerging and re-emerging bat-borne diseases globally has increased in the past years and this has raised many concerns on public health. “There is a potential health risk when a human is bit by a bat,” he added.

Although bat flies have been recorded on new hosts in Mt. Makiling, there is no immediate cause for alarm. “The new host and distribution records can actually help us trace possible sources of emerging zoonotic diseases, “said Alvarez.

“There is also no reason to panic,” assured Alviola. “Incidence of bat bites are very rare, even rarer than the incidence of people making contact with bats,” he explained.

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