For centuries, blood feeders have inhabited our nightmares and horror stories, as well as the most shadowy realm of our scientific knowledge. In Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, Dr. Bill Schutt, an authority on vampire bats, takes the reader on a dark but entertaining voyage into the world of some of its strangest creatures – the sanguivores.
In mapping out the world of blood- feeding creatures, Schutt focuses on their natural history and behavior – especially their unique feeding habits. The author visits rivers in South America, where the candiru (or vampire catfish) is more feared then the legendary piranha, and suburban habitats where mosquitoes, fleas, and the diseases they transmit, have changed the course of human civilization. From leeches- ancient invertebrates now helping surgeons to save newly transplanted limbs, to ticks and the controversy over the existence of chronic Lyme disease, Schutt provides fascinating details on the lives of these bizarre creatures and their relationships with humans.
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Dark Banquet also explores the resurgence of bed bugs. Formerly cave-dwelling bat parasites – bed bugs have transitioned to a life of feeding on human blood. According to experts, bed bugs will become the number one household pest in the U.S. within two years. In Dark Banquet, Schutt explains what bed bugs are, then thoroughly reviews the reasons for the bed bug resurgence. The author also informs readers about how to prevent bed bug infestations, and just as importantly, what to do if you encounter a bed bug problem.
Finally, Schutt interviews several entomologists about the recent decline in honey bee populations. Colony Collapse Disorder is a serious problem and the hemolymph-feeding bee mite, Varroa destructor, has been implicated in its spread. The mites are thought to weaken the honey bees but the real problem is that they appear to trigger and/or transmit a pair of deadly bee viruses (Kashmir bee virus and Israeli Acute bee paralysis virus). On a related note, Schutt focuses on the hysteria generated by a study that supposedly implicated cell phones as a cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.
In Trinidad and Brazil, Bill Schutt has tracked some of the most misunderstood and highly evolved mammals on the planet – vampire bats. Feared for the transmission of rabies, and the bloody scenes that follow a vampire bat attack, the author shows how vampire populations have exploded in some regions – all because of man. Schutt also details how the saliva from these highly specialized mammals has recently provided medical science with some of its most potent stroke-preventing agents. Dark Banquet readers will also learn about prehistoric vampire bats that dwarfed their modern cousins and the tropical explorers whose real-life encounters led to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Schutt also looks at the history of man’s association with blood – from the bible, to early transfusions (sheep were popular blood donors), to the widespread practice of blood-letting, which was as commonly prescribed as aspirin is today. For example, Schutt details how George Washington was bled a total of 80 ounces within a thirteen hour period – on what would be the last day of his life. Why? For nearly two thousand years, physicians believed that blood was one of four bodily liquids called humors. The physical and mental health of an individual was thought to be dependent on keeping these humors in balance – which meant frequent purges, binges, and blood-letting (commonly referred to as “breathing a vein”). It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that physicians learned that many diseases were actually caused by pathogenic organisms like bacteria.
Using humor and a serious enthusiasm for his subject, Bill Schutt’s book Dark Banquet will appeal to readers of popular science works by authors like Carl Zimmer (Parasite Rex) and Mary Roach (Stiff).
Dark Banquet contains over fifty illustrations by award-winning artist Patricia J. Wynne
Book Reviews and articles
“I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Schutt’s Dark Banquet… Having donated some of myself to most kinds of bloodsuckers during my field research around the world (mercifully with the exception of vampire bats and candiru catfish), I was totally absorbed by this thoroughly charming and scientifically accurate account.”
– Edward O. Wilson
“A jaunty, instructive and charmingly graphic look at nature’s born phlebotomists – creatures from wildly different twigs of the phylogenetic tree that all happen to share a fondness for blood.”
– Natalie Angier (The New York Times)
“The combination of Bill Schutt’s marvelous writing and Pat Wynne’s elegant illustrations makes Dark Banquet –the definitive account of blood feeding in nature– an unstoppable, exhilarating read. Schutt brings both wisdom and wit to his coverage of fascinating facts about the biology of various creatures and the historical interplay of humans as victims, beneficiaries, and scientists. The book has the perfect balance of enlightenment, humor, and irreverence that is so true to a dedicated field biologist with a keen sense of subjects ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci’s fascination with leech locomotion to New York’s bedbug problem. Dark Banquet is engrossing without being gross at all!”
– Michael Novacek (Provost and Curator, American Museum of Natural History)
“What starts out as a horror movie of a book morphs into an entrancing exploration of the living world. Bill Schutt turns whatever fear and disgust you may feel towards nature’s vampires into a healthy respect for evolution’s power to fill every conceivable niche. And once you’re done, you’ll be spoiling one dinner party after another retelling Schutt’s tales of bats, leeches, and bed bugs.”
– Carl Zimmer (author of Parasite Rex)
“Schutt enthusiastically surveys the world of sanguivores and hematophages. That’s ‘blood eaters’ to the layperson, and if the vampire species doesn’t get you, then the leeches and chiggers and bedbugs and mites and ticks likely will—not unto death, perhaps, but very much unto distraction. And if it’s the candiru that swims its way up your urethra, there to lodge its spines and gorge away, then best of luck in your struggle. Schutt explains the history and metabolism of these unpleasant critters, including their fossil and cultural records. He details the nasty group of diseases they transmit: bubonic plague, rabies, scrub typhus, tick vectors [sic]. Almost worse than these real ailments is delusional parasitosis, “a condition in which the victim believes that tiny biting or bloodsucking creatures are crawling over his or her body.” Though the author enjoys extolling these sensational aspects, at the same time he painlessly—rather like vampire bats, whose nip is rarely felt—introduces scientific material such as ontogeny, phylogeny and heterochrony. He takes critical detours when necessary (“So what is blood, exactly?”) and displays a pleasingly corny sense of humor: “Leeches had always given me the creeps. In fact they were right up there with clowns and televangelists.” Schutt even manages to make a case for their existence as food sources, pollinators and insectivores, not to mention the beneficent use contemporary medicine makes of leeches. Then he dangles a few additional bloodthirsty beasts, including hookworms, assassin bugs and the vampire finch that feeds on the blue-footed booby. Bloodthirsty readers may well find their appetite whetted for more. A natural history of bloodsuckers that shines in gory glory.
– Kirkus Review
“Schutt is a bat biologist who studies the behavior of vampire bats, those famous ‘blood suckers’ of the South American tropics. While studying the three species of vampires, he became interested in the properties of blood itself and of other blood-feeding animals. In a chatty, humorous style, the author first talks of his bat research and the species of vampire bat that will nuzzle its way under a brooding hen to feed on her highly vascularized brood patch. In the second part of the book, Schutt tells of blood itself, its functions in the body and how it is transported by the circulatory system. He describes early medicine and its love of bloodletting, leading to the extensive use of medicinal leeches – a practice that continues today. In the final section, the author introduces us to several other sanguivores, including chiggers, ticks and bedbugs. With great scientific accuracy (backed up by extensive notes and a bibliography), text couched in layman’s terms, and a sense of breathless discovery, Schutt will make blood feeding just another choice on the culinary spectrum.
“Dark Banquet is an amazing account of all those creatures that most of us consider really creepy! But author Bill Schutt doesn’t, and actually embraces these critters and their blood-thirsty lifestyles. It’s great to see such wonderful animal research in a reader-friendly form. After finishing the book, you’ll have a lot to discuss at your next dinner party!”
– Jack Hanna
“Who would have guessed that blood feeders would be so diverse AND so much fun to read about? As a bat biologist and a Dracula fan, I expected to like this book, but I was amazed by how much I enjoyed the mix of science and story telling in Bill Schutt’s Dark Banquet. His accounts seamlessly blend biology with tales of field adventures, scientific discoveries, myths, and legends. I loved this book (and so did my 14-year old son, who snitched it from me almost as soon as I brought it into the house). What fun!”
– Nancy Simmons (Curator, American Museum of Natural History)
“The subjects of this book–vampire bats, leeches, bed bugs, mites, ticks, and candiru—(the blood-sucking catfish of the Amazon River)—are creatures which most of us want nothing to do with. But Schutt (Biology, LIU-Post, Long Island) hooks the reader on the first page with a riveting description of how the Trinidadian white-winged vampire bat mimics the behavior of a baby chick in order to nestle under the mother hen and bleed her. Schutt’s hands-on experience with vampire bats, both in the wild and in the lab, makes the chapters on bats particularly engaging. Yet this is a well-rounded exploration of blood feeders from both a biological perspective (habitat, diet, life cycle) and an evolutionary one (how and why obligate blood feeding evolved). ...engrossing science… It is no small feat to create an appreciation for organisms which at the very least pester us and at the very worst can kill us. An excellent choice for the high school student considering a science career and for the general reader”
– Library Journal
“…informative history and engaging personal anecdotes… Schutt’s fascination for sanguivores goes a long way towards disarming, while defining, our primal fear of creatures that feed on blood…witty and illuminating.”
– Publishers Weekly