Stay Away from the Water!
A piranha or piraña is a member of family Characidae in order Characiformes, an omnivorous freshwater fish that inhabits South American rivers. In Venezuela, they are called caribes. They are known for their sharp teeth and powerful jaws.
Piranhas do indeed have sharp teeth, and many are carnivorous. But there’s a lot of diet variation among species—that’s one reason piranhas have proved hard to taxonomically classify. Piranhas are also hard to tell apart in terms of species, diet, coloration, teeth, and even geographic range. This lack of knowledge adds a bit of dark mystery to the creatures.
When Theodore Roosevelt journeyed to South America in 1913, he encountered, among other exotic creatures, several different species of piranha. Here’s what he had to say about them in his bestseller, Through the Brazilian Wilderness:
“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; they mutilate swimmers—in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; 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.”
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Piranhas attract a certain type of pet lover, and sometimes when the fish gets too large for its aquarium said pet lover decides its much better off in the local lake. In this manner, piranhas have shown up in waterways around the globe from Great Britain to China to Texas. It’s legal to own a piranha in some areas, but obviously never a good idea to release them into the wild, as the species could become invasive.
The idea that a piranha could rip a human to shreds is probably more legend than fact, too. For the curious, Popular Science spoke to some experts who estimate that stripping the flesh from a 180-pound human in 5 minutes would require approximately 300 to 500 piranhas. Cases of heart attack and epilepsy that ended with the afflicted drowning in a South American river do show evidence of piranha nibbles, but in those instances, the victim was already deceased when piranhas got involved.
While the myth of the man-eating piranha belongs to movie theaters, the Internet has a wealth of mysterious footage of piranha packs taking down capybaras. Some piranhas do occasionally eat small mammals, but as with humans, it’s usually when the unfortunate animal is already dead or gravely injured.
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A 2007 study linked noise, splashing, and spilling food, fish, or blood into the river with three instances of piranha attacks on humans in Suriname. Piranhas might be naturally attuned to pick up on the sound of fruits and nuts falling from trees and hitting the water and, thus, mistake splashing children for the noise associated with food.
As for blood, it likely does not render a piranha senseless as the movies would suggest, but piranhas can smell a drop of blood in 200 liters of water. So, if you are a bleeding, rambunctious child, a dip in the Amazon might not be the best idea.
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They’re great grilled or in soup
In some parts of the Amazon, eating piranha is considered taboo, a common cultural perception for predatory fish, while others are convinced it’s an aphrodisiac. Piranha soup is popular in the Pantanal region of Brazil, but many choose to serve the fish grilled on a banana leaf with tomatoes and limes for garnish.
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