STRANGE BUT TRUE- Free-flowing: How bats drink like 'the Count'


Q. The vampire Dracula is fictional but "draculin" is real stuff. Where might this "horror" be encountered?–B. Stoker

A. We're not making up the name. It's the anticoagulant secreted by blood-feeding vampire bats. There are more than a thousand types of bats in the world, some 70 percent of which eat insects, most others consume fruits. Only three species are vampiric: the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat, say Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg in Why Did It Have to Be Snakes.

Their usual prey is a sleeping mammal, and rather than fly into its hair or face, they land on the ground and sneak up by walking or running. They use their teeth to cut into the flesh and secrete draculin, then simply lap up their fill of free-flowing blood with their tongue. During one 20-minute feeding, they can consume an ounce of blood, digesting it back in the roost over the course of the night. For a batty footnote, the word is derived from the Old Norse "ledhrblaka" for "leather flapper," eventually shortened to "bakka" and finally to "bat."

Q. It details one of the most surprising divisions of the haves and have-nots of the world, with an estimated 2.6 billion people suffering not just deprivation but problems of sanitation, health, longevity. It's a book not to be wasted or eliminated from your reading list. Guessing the subject matter here shows you're a keen observer of culture, biology, human history.–T. Crapper

A. The haves are owners of toilets, whose absence can take years away from life expectancy–affecting about a third of the world, says Rose George in The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste.

Potty training is one of the first steps in socialization and cities would be impossible without sanitation. "Water-borne diseases" account for some 10 percent of all illness. Chief cultural divide: Between those who use paper and those who use water, or between private and public "thrones."

Biggest curiosity: Why some German males are encouraged to sit while many Swedish women prefer to stand. To sit or to squat: Worldwide, this is a big question (sitting can "impede release"). And on it goes with average amounts, numbers of wipes, fertilizer potentials, even the etymological link between the four-letter s-word and the word for "science." So have fun reading this book on the loo, but remember that someone else may be waiting to use the facility.

Q. What can the rider of a wild bull (or even a mechanical bull in a bar, for that matter) do to help stay mounted other than just holding the strap around the animal's chest?–W.B. Hickock

A. With each sudden move of the bull– twisting, pitching, running, stopping– the rider's momentum and angular momentum tend to send or rotate her from her perch, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. Instead of holding on to the strap tightly with both hands, she can do better by throwing one arm high, far from her rotational center, in a direction to counter any sudden rotation of the more massive upper body of the bull. If she also holds a large hat with her free hand, the air drag on the hat as it is waved might give an extra measure of resistance to the rotation of the upper body.

A first-time roller or ice skater does something similar to partially correct a problem with imbalance. "During my first time on roller skates, when the skates tended to roll out in front of me, I automatically rotated my arms in vertical circles back over my shoulders (like a windmill) to keep my center of mass positioned over the skates and thus to maintain my balance and what little was left of my pride." 


Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at