Are Piranha Dangerous Fish?
Piranha are really very shyClick thumbnail to view full-size
Humans are not on their menu
The name of no other fresh water creature, excepting perhaps the anaconda, strikes more dread into the explorers of the Amazon and its tributaries than the piranha, or pirana, (pronounced peerhanya). Like most other predators which Hollywood has featured, its reputation is not at all deserved.
Piranhas, like sharks, poisonous snakes, some spiders and scorpions and the rest can be dangerous, but 99.9% of the time, they just aren’t, mainly because “man-meat” is not their natural diet, and in some cases there exists definite proof they even find ithe flavour of human flesh repulsive.
In the case of the piranha, actually a very shy and nervous fellow, it sees anything as large as a human as a danger to itself, like the larger fish, caimans, fresh-water dolphins, and wading birds that do feed on them. Humans have received serious injuries from the bite of the larger piranhas, but there is not one recorded fatality. Not one Homo sapiens has been stripped to its skeleton by a host of blood-crazed little fishes unless it was dead already - although they would be easily capable of doing so.
In fact, it is very unlikely piranha would attack the corpse of a man either. They like their meat alive and struggling, preferably, or fresh and bloody, like a duck shot and falling into their waters. Their diet is a varied one, taking all kinds of insects and arachnids, lizards, frogs, birds, small mammals, in fact, anything they can handle that falls into the water and commences to struggle. They also prey on other fish, many other species bear scars where a piranha has snipped off a lump of flesh, and are cannibalistic: piranhas keep a very wary eye on one another!.
There are more than 50 species of piranha, only four of which are considered dangerous to man in certain circumstances, and many of these species are herbivorous. The only dangers would be in the dry season when pools and streams dry-up trapping them without food, or when they are in a feeding-frenzy consuming their natural food and an errant human puts his toes or hands in the water. It only takes one slashing bite from their large, shark-like teeth to receive a very nasty wound and the loss of about an ounce of flesh. In fact, many of the bites received from piranha were upon fishermen who handled a large one too casually. The fish, are a favourite for the pot in the Amazon region, and its razor sharp teeth have been used as tools and weapon-tips for centuries.
The piranha mainly gained its reputation - which has stuck - from a book written by President Roosevelt after a trip to the Amazon region of Brazil, called “Through the Brazilian Wilderness.” In fact, the story of how the piranhas featured in the Roosevelt book may have as much fantasy attached to it as does the undeserved reputation of the protagonists. So the yarn goes, Brazilian natives, hearing of Roosevelt’s fascination and preconceived image of the “killer” fish, herded many thousands of them into a land-locked lake where they milled around in a starving condition. They then threw cut-up joints from several cattle into the water. While the American watched in fascinated horror, the pirana did, indeed, strip the carcasses down to the bones in record time, causing Roosevelt to devote several paragraphs to them in his book. I would like to copy it here, but I would probably get a duplicate stamp. You can find it on Google.
Several movies have used the piranha in a bloodthirsty manner, primarily the Bond nonsense, “You Only Live Twice,” in which the nasty Blofeld feeds the hapless Helga to the piranha.
Thanks to them being released into rivers and lakes by disenchanted pet owners or exotic fish dealers trying to avoid prosecution, piranha have appeared in many parts of the world. One even showed up in a river in Devon in the UK! Must have scared the beejaysus out of the chap that caught it when the “bream” he thought he had hooked showed teeth like Esther Rantzen’s at him. The alarm over the dangers to local wildlife in many countries, especially North America, have seen the sale of piranhas banned in most states, specifically the Red. Or Red-Bellied Piranhas. They can only be kept singly, really, as many problems arise from multiples of the aggressive fish in a small tank. Plus the fact that the cute little three-inch-long “Clown-fishey” wiv teeth” that the kind pet shop dealer sold you is now 10-inches long and just bit the tail off the cat. (They have been found up to 18 inches long).
Piranhas have now, of course, caught the fancy of tourists, who should know better then to buy the poor, dried specimens to adorn their mantelpieces. I hope the word does get around the piranha and they start adding idiotic, tittering tourists to their diet as Roosevelt would have had us believe. But nothing so far tastes worse to a discerning piranha…