Remains of a great vampire from a hundred thousand years ago

Vampires are mammals that today only live in America. They belong to the family of demodontids, known to feed on the blood of animals; that is, they are blood-sucking.

Recently, an interesting fossil attributed to an extinct vampire, larger than those known to date, was presented to the international scientific community. The fossil comes from Pleistocene sediments, in the vicinity of the La Ballenera stream. Specifically, it is a mandibular branch. And it was found inside the burrow of a giant sloth that lived about one hundred thousand years ago, near the Buenos Aires town of Miramar, in Argentina.

The discovered vampire is part of a class of bats, which includes only three living species, such as the common vampire (Desmodus rotundus), the white-winged vampire (Diaemus youngi), and the hairy-legged vampire (Diphylla ecaudata).

“They are the only family of bats in the world that arouses curiosity from the legends of Transylvania and its creepy Count Dracula” underlines Mariano Magnussen, from the Paleontological Laboratory of the Museum of Natural Sciences of Miramar and researcher at the Azara Foundation, where it is sheltered the new specimen.

The vampire’s mandibular branch was identified as Desmodus draculae, a species first found in Venezuela in 1988, which alludes to the ghostly fictional character. It lived in the Quaternary of America, and was 30% larger than the common vampire (Desmodus rotundus).

“The giant vampire is relative, because its wingspan would be somewhat larger than those of a computer keyboard, but significantly larger than its current representatives,” commented Santiago Brizuela, from the National University of Mar del Plata, one of the authors of the study, which has been published in the Ameghinian paleontology journal, edited by the Argentine Paleontological Association.

At the time that Desmodus draculae lived in southeastern Buenos Aires, on what is now the Atlantic coast of Argentina, the region was inhabited by huge giant sloths, such as the megaterium about 4.5 meters high, by herds of extinct South American elephants, such as the Notiomastodon, giant armored mammals more than 4 meters long and more than a ton in weight known as glyptodonts, or by the iconic saber-toothed tiger and many other beasts, now totally extinct, whose fossils are exhibited in the Miramare Museum.

Paleoartistic recreation of specimens of Desmodus draculae on the ceiling of a cave in which there is also a giant sloth of the genus Scelidotherium. (Image: Miramar Museum of Natural Sciences)

The new fossil was studied under a stereoscopic microscope, and compared with the reference materials available in different institutions, together with the data recovered by the authors. This allowed paleoartist Daniel Boh, head of the local natural science museum, to recreate Desmodus feeding on a giant sloth.

When the researcher Daniel Tassara, collaborator of the Pachamama Museum of Natural Sciences, and co-author of the study was consulted, “The mandibular branch of Desmodus draculae was found inside a cave or burrow 1.2 meters in diameter, attributed to a giant sloth of the family Mylodontidae, genus Scelidotherium. We do not know if this vampire entered the cave to feed, take refuge, or was prey to another animal, “he clarified to the media.

Another important detail of the discovery of this fossil vampire jaw is that it provides palaeoenvironmental and paleoclimatic data for the Upper Pleistocene, since its most direct relative, the common vampire (Desmodus rotundus) is currently located 400 kilometers north of the location of the “ Miraramarense vampire ”. Therefore, the environmental conditions of the La Ballenera stream site would have been different from those we can observe today.

The only antecedents of ancient vampires in Argentina correspond to those found in this area. One of them is a superior canine isolated from the late Holocene from the neighboring town of Centinela del Mar, referred to Desmodus cf. D. draculae, which incredibly did not become a fossil, since radiocarbon dating was 300 years old.

What this new fossil remains, the historical specimen, and other materials at various points in South America indicate is that Desmodus draculae, was the last of the great flying mammals, and became extinct during the colonial period, in approximately 1820, possibly as a consequence from the ‘Little Ice Age’.

This exceptional find is part of the scientific collections of the new Miramar Museum of Natural Sciences, founded in 2019 by the Municipality of General Alvarado and by the prestigious Azara Foundation, reaffirming the relevance of the paleontological sites in the area and its link with researchers from different parts of Argentina and abroad. (Source: Miramar Museum of Natural Sciences)

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