While your chances of encountering the carnivorous and ravenous pack-hunter known as the piranha is low (or will you? See sidebar below), knowing about such an exotic species may come in handy should you ever visit its surprisingly expansive territory.
In this article, we delve into some facts about the piranha, dispel a few myths about this infamous fish and show you how to avoid being attacked.
The piranha is found mainly in the Amazon basin. Its habitat range includes the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela, all the way to the Paraná River in Argentina. There are around 30 species of piranha that inhabit the lakes and rivers in South America.
Piranhas have been indigenous to South America for millions of years, but the piranha we see today has only been around for about 1.8 million years, as opposed to the more “prehistoric” piranha that’s as old as 9 million years.
Their Bite is Worse than their Bark
Scientists in Belgium have discovered that the Red-Bellied Piranha, a more common species, actually produces at least three distinct sounds to communicate their “feelings” when annoyed or angered – these piranha “bark” before biting, make a drum-like beat when fighting for food, and emit a soft “croaking” sound when snapping at other piranhas.
How they make these sounds is by using muscles attached to their swim bladders, although a report by National Geographic suggests they also “gnash their teeth” to make one of the sounds. Unfortunately, these sounds aren’t clearly audible to the unassisted human ear, so you may not pick up on their warning.
As for their bite, piranhas have one of the most powerful bites among bony fishes. A member of their species, the Black Piranha, has a bite-force of about 72 pounds per square inch owing to its powerful jaw muscles. Fortunately, the Black Piranha is quite solitary and is not known to attack humans.
The Red-Bellied Piranhas are the more common culprits, and their bite force is almost as strong as the Black Piranha. Like sharks, the piranha’s teeth are serrated and have a similar enamel structure, making them well-suited for its meat diet.
But unlike sharks, piranhas have only a single row of teeth in each of their jaws as opposed to the three or four rows of serrated chompers on sharks, and they replace their worn-out teeth in quarters, not individually like sharks.
Teddy Roosevelt began their Myth
Despite movies like 1978’s Piranha, the myth of the all-consuming fish that lurk in the warm waters wasn’t spread by a cheap Hollywood production, but by outdoorsman extraordinaire, author and former US President Theodore Roosevelt himself.
Roosevelt extolled the mystique of the piranha as told in his bestselling book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness. An excerpt in his book describes the fish:
“They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; and they mutilate swimmers—in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; also they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked.”
This was part of Roosevelt’s account of the piranha when he visited a small village along the Amazon in 1913 (well after his presidential term), after the locals put on a “show” for him. After starving a pack of the fish in an enclosure for a week, they set them loose in a cordoned-off part of the river, then threw in a live cow for the fish to devour.
Thanks to the piranhas’ starved condition, the river foamed up and turned red in minutes, and the river seemingly spat out the cow’s skeleton, completely stripped of meat and skin.
Not the Apex Predator you Expect
With a reputation of stripping an entire cow down to its bones, you’d think that the piranha would be at the very top of the food chain in the Amazon basin. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
The piranha not only competes for dominance and food with a number of different animals in the Amazon, but it’s preyed upon as well. Caymans, larger fish, birds, turtles, the pink river dolphin and even humans have piranha as part of their diet.
In some parts of the Amazon, eating the fish is considered sacrilegious, but in other parts, the fish is made into soup, fried or grilled and served on a banana leaf with tomatoes and limes.
Finding piranhas anywhere apart from its habitat in the Amazon is rare and is usually due to some individuals buying them online, then eventually realizing they can no longer feed or house them in their aquariums, then dumping them into nearby waterways.
This could be the cause of an incident that occurred August 27, 2011; a young girl caught a furiously flapping, snapping fish from the lake in Tom Bass Park, which suspiciously looked like a Red-Bellied Piranha. Officials at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) confirmed that it was indeed a Red-Bellied Piranha, the most aggressive and dangerous type.
While mere possession and worse, releasing live piranhas, are considered crimes that can mean a minimum $500 fine and heftier fines and jail times for repeat offenses, it hasn’t stopped “enthusiasts” from buying Red-Bellied Piranhas online from out-of-state vendors.
All it takes is knowing the right website or Facebook group and a credit card, and an eager buyer can have a thriving pack of piranha in his aquarium kept well out of sight.
Truth be told, TPWD officials come across piranhas along with other prohibited, invasive species every year. Fortunately, at least in the case of piranhas, these fish can’t survive in temperatures lower than 50 degrees (F).
In most lakes and rivers in the U.S. This means a piranha will often be dead by winter, and this is why illegally-released piranha have been unable to thrive in our waters. The only way for piranha to survive is for them to find refuge in warmer waters, such as those found in the Deep South, Southern Texas and most parts of Florida.
Thankfully, this hasn’t happened among large schools. Yet.
How to Avoid Piranha Attacks
Let’s hope Black or Red-Bellied Piranha never get a foothold in our waters, but in the off chance that they do, or that you’ll be swimming in the piranha-infested waters of the Amazon river, here are steps you can take to avoid ending up as another meal of a pack of piranhas:
Step 1. Get familiar with their territory. Piranhas are freshwater fish and die in cold water; they only inhabit still or slow-moving streams or lakes. If you aren’t swimming in the Amazon, you’ve got nothing to worry about. But should you find yourself in the Amazon…
Step 2. Avoid swimming during the “dry” months of the Amazon. In South America, this is usually from April to September. If you’re unsure as to the season, ask the locals if and when it’s safe to be in the river.
Step 3. Avoid any isolated “ponds”. During the dry season, parts of the river may shrink or grow with the rains. If you see any “solitary” ponds, avoid wading into them or even standing close to them. Piranhas can become extremely desperate for food and will go as far as leaping out of the water to bite and feed on anything that moves.
Step 4. Wait until dark. Should you need to cross any rivers or waterways inhabited by piranhas by swimming and it’s the dry season, make your crossing at night; piranhas hunt by day and sleep by night. Should you stumble upon any “sleeping” piranha, they’ll usually swim away, but it’s better to simply avoid disturbing them. Remember that, while piranhas may not be a threat during the night, there will be other dangerous predators on the hunt, like Caimans.
Step 5. Avoid getting into the water if you are bleeding or have any open wounds. Like sharks, piranha have an extremely acute sense of smell. They can smell traces of blood in the water and will swim quickly to investigate and feed on its source. Don’t carry any raw meat when you get into the water, and if you handled any raw meat, wash your hands thoroughly as they may pick up the scent. Don’t wash your hands in the same water they inhabit. Stay well away from any waters where birds nest, where fish are cleaned or where garbage is dumped; the blood and other refuse that are in these spots could rub off on you and attract piranha.
Step 6. If you can’t cross by boat, swim calmly and quietly. Piranhas are attracted to “unusual activity” about as much as they are to blood. Don’t splash about excessively as you swim; you may be mistaken for a helpless, wounded animal in its death throes – perfect prey for piranha. Swim only with minimal, smooth and fluid motions.
Step 7. Don’t make too much noise or use flashlights or lanterns when crossing at night – these will disturb the piranha and prompt them to attack.
Step 8. If you have any reason to believe that you may be attacked by piranha, you can use a “diversion”. Have a large piece of raw meat ready and throw it at an area opposite your destination. Remember that a pack of hungry piranha can consume a carcass in seconds, so use this small “window” of a distraction wisely. Get across and out of the water as quickly as you can.
Is it a Piranha or a Pacu?
There have been instances where a “piranha” caught in our waterways has actually turned out to be little more than its similar-looking cousin, the pacu. The pacu is called the “vegetarian piranha” because that’s what it basically is. The Pacu looks strikingly similar to its more voracious, meat-eating cousin, and their colors are almost the same. Their main differences lie in their shape, size, demeanor and teeth – except the teeth can seem eerily scary as well since they almost look like human teeth!
Unlike its carnivorous cousin, the Red-Bellied Pacu can grow up to an enormous size, up to 2.9 feet in length, and weigh as much as 55 pounds.
Owners of this fish are usually ignorant of how big they can get, so once they outgrow their aquariums and eat their owners out of house and home, they end up getting dumped into nearby waterways.
Unless you’re living in the Amazon basin, there’s not much point in worrying about a piranha attack. But in the off chance you find yourself in close proximity to them, remember that piranhas are a lot like many other predators. And they should be dealt with in the same way – don’t present yourself as a vulnerable target.
This isn’t to mean that you should puff up your chest and look intimidating. You should do the exact opposite – don’t make too much noise, don’t splash about like a wounded or dying animal, don’t go into the water if you’re bleeding (that includes women on their periods), and stay out of their way.
Piranhas are skittish creatures and rarely attack humans, such as when they’re starving or protecting their eggs; if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone too.