There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, pour yourself a glass of something good, and take mental notes as we swim with an infamous face-eater.
“The pirañas were eating the boy there,” José said, pointing down the red dirt bank to the muddy Amazonian water. I studied the water and considered what we were about to do.
“Okay,” he continued, grinning, “let’s go swim.”
And with that we joined the group of Chiquitano kids hollering and splashing nearby. I slipped into the middle and stood stob still. Need be, I reckoned I could push down some and outrun others; Chiquitano is Spanish for “little folk” after all. José urged me to swim, but I knew pirañas (also spelled piranhas) could turn me into a European mount faster than a horde of Dermestid beetles. I knew it for the same reason you do: because The Rough Rider told me so—even if indirectly.
From December 1913 to April 1914, former President Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and a media entourage mounted a “zoogeographical reconnaissance” expedition that had them camping, hunting, and fishing across the mysterious landscapes of South America. In remote Brazil near the Aripuanã River, Teddy’s posse watched his native guides push a cow into a stretch of river. A pack of red-bellied piranhas boiled and quickly reduced the bellowing bovine to bones, blood, and bad memories. When the crew broke camp, TR left his name on both the offending fish (Rooseveltiella nattereri) and on the river: Rio Roosevelt. The experience likewise branded the Bull Moose such that he was compelled to share that mark with America:
“They are the most ferocious fish in the world…[T]he piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers…; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness…,” Theodore Roosevelt “Through the Brazilian Wilderness,” 1914.
His earnest account grabbed folks by the hackles, played fiddle tunes on the strings of their deepest fears, put a pucker in the butts of generations of American kids jumping into murky waters, and inspired supper table conversation, storytellers, writers, and others. And then film makers took that crazy tale, made it even crazier, and screamed it from the pop culture mountaintops with movies like “Piranha” (1978), “Piranha 3D” (2010) and—perhaps the worst movie ever made—”Piranha 3DD” (2012). In this way, the piranha ate its way into the American psyche.
And, it all started with The Old Lion. But, had his eyes deceived him?
Every time José urged me deeper into the lake, I whiskey-faced another step. Finally, he laughed and put me out of my misery.
“The boy drowned. The fish found him first,” José said. “Piranhas don’t bother us.”
It’d all been a goof to impress and test the gringo. And, even with the truth, I swam like a kid evading sharks in a dark swimming pool. Over the next two years, as we swam, bathed, and wade-fished for pirañas with handlines, spears, and machetes, I held that perpetual pucker despite myself. We killed countless piranhas for breakfast soup, and I never heard of a single attack on a human. But messages get in deep and they’re hard to shake. Truth be damned.
Because, Teddy said…
Well, the bastards tricked Teddy, and now we’re tricked, too.
The deception was more spectacle than spite. Even today, when a VIP or, a noxiously American concept—a VVIP, comes to town, folks line up the dogs alongside the ponies, don their church clothes, and do their best to polish the turds so that the P leaves with warm feelings. Well, The Cowboy King was the VI-est of Ps when he went to Brazil—some say he was the most famous man in the world at that time. So, folks wanted to impress—and as is the Amazonian way—to playfully test. They were just fellas having fun after all.
So, this is what you, me, America, and The Happy Warrior didn’t know, according to writer, convicted plagiarist and tax-evader, and red-bellied piranha expert H. R. Axelrod: Brazilian ichthyologist Alípio de Miranda-Riberiro and a team of locals netted off a stretch of river, stocked it with thousands of red-bellied piranhas, and starved them until Colonel Roosevelt arrived.
While banter and badlands distracted the former president, the locals led an old menstruating cow to the water’s edge. They slit an udder then pushed her into the shallows. A mass of silver sides, red throats, and teeth would have been schooled up on the shoal there for protection from birds, caiman, and other predators. Maybe they didn’t hear the bellowing or notice those first staggered splashing steps. Piranhas usually disperse and hunt alone. But they can sense a single drop of blood in 50 gallons of water, so chances are that as soon as the blood hit the water at least one piranha noticed. And that’s all it took.
In natural conditions, the red-bellied piranha eats a third of its body weight every day, mostly plant material, insects, fish or snippets thereof, snails—and carrion. These fish hadn’t eaten in days, maybe weeks. So, when the first fish tasted blood, as is their way, it barked and grunted from its swim bladder and gnashed its teeth to signal the pack. They converged upon the cow’s legs, line after line of fish swiping, biting, and retreating. When the cow toppled, they likely started with the eyes and rear end. Sleep with that one. The starving fish ate like a pack of 9-day backcountry hunters on a Wendy’s double-stack.
So, 105 years later, that’s what we think happened, but what more do we know about piranhas? Not as much as you might think. There is still so much contradictory information and mystery around the piranha.
In a name
Linguists say the origins of the name can be traced to Brazil’s Native Tupí language where roughly “pirá” (fish) plus “aia” (teeth) = tooth fish. This becomes piranha in Portuguese and English (circa 1710) and, in Spanish, piraña.
All in the family
Modern piranha species are said to be about 1.8 million years old. Today they range from Colombia through South America to northern Argentina. But scientists have had such a hard time distinguishing the species, diet, coloration, and geographic range of piranhas and their cousins that experts can’t agree whether there are 30 or 60 species and how they should be taxonomically arranged. Rinella’s commentary on “lumpers and splitters,” rings true here.
Some biologists believe that regional differences signify different species (splitters), while others tend to think of a species as a big tent encompassing many variations (lumpers). But the debate is academic for our purposes. Put it all in a pot, boil it down, sort through the remnants, and this is what we need to know: Across the warm waters of South America there’s several kinds of toothy fish that are scary as hell. Some are vegetarian. Some are carnivorous. Some go both ways.
According to various resources, Teddy’s red-bellied piranhas (now Pygocentrus nattereriare) have the strongest jaws and the sharpest teeth and are the most abundant, the most beautiful, most aggressive, and thus most likely to eat the face off a human. And, while they are not the largest—that title goes to the black piranha—red-bellies grow to about 20 inches and 4 pounds. Pair that with shark-like teeth that begin growing when the fish is a larva and are replaced many times throughout their lives, you have, in fact, one scary hombre. No need for the fiction.
But do they eat people?
Yes and no. Carrion is an important part of the piranha’s diet. Sometimes that carrion is a cadaver. Piranhas do attack humans, but rarely, and rarely with fatal results. Victims are more often left with a chunk missing from a finger and a terrible new nightmare. But, wouldn’t that scar and inspire a helluva story at the bar?
When piranhas, like other animals, attack humans it usually coincides with extreme circumstances. In a village near where I stayed in Bolivia, a jaguar took a teenager as he walked through the drought-stricken forest. In a popular Mississippi lake near my home, a blind alligator took a girl from the swim area. Barracudas take the earrings off divers and sometimes snag some face too. Moray eels take digits off foolish snorkelers. My cousin Kevin is so pasty and freckly that a bluegill in my aunt’s overstocked pond attacked his stomach; he still has the scar. In Vortex Spring, Florida, a spawning largemouth once hit a diver between the eyes, broke his nose, and fractured his mask. Shit happens. And, animal attacks often come when they’re hungry, startled, encroached upon, protecting their young or their food, sick, cornered, or desperate. But, the piranha with its ugly, terrifying mug is a poster child for scary. And, their PR team sucks.
But, will piranhas turn you into a Euro mount? Despite the hype, you’re far more likely to die on a visit to the Grand Canyon than while swimming with piranhas. Just don’t drown in their dining room if you want an open casket. Even wading in their waters with an open wound would probably be a very bad idea. But you should know today what South American Natives have known for ages: Piranhas are far better to eat than they are to worry about eating you.