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Legendary Myth of Piranha Revealed - As reported by H. R. Axelrod

Educational Use Only

Condensed by Frank Magallanes, OPEFE






Roosevelt, Theodore. 1914. "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." 


"But the piranha is a short, deep-bodied fish, with a blunt face and a heavily undershot or projecting lower jaw which gapes widely. The razor-edged teeth are wedge-shaped like a shark’s, and the jaw muscles possess great power. The rabid, furious snaps drive the teeth through flesh and bone. The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks."


"I never witnessed an exhibition of such impotent, savage fury as was shown by the piranhas as they flapped on deck. When fresh from the water and thrown on the boards they uttered an extraordinary squealing sound. As they flapped about they bit with vicious eagerness at whatever presented itself. One of them flapped into a cloth and seized it with a bulldog grip. Another grasped one of its fellows; another snapped at a piece of wood, and left the teeth-marks deep therein. They are the pests of the waters, and it is necessary to be exceedingly cautious about either swimming or wading where they are found."


"If cattle are driven into, or of their own accord enter, the water, they are commonly not molested; but if by chance some unusually big or ferocious specimen of these fearsome fishes does bite an animal—taking off part of an ear, or perhaps of a teat from the udder of a cow—the blood brings up every member of the ravenous throng which is anywhere near, and unless the attacked animal can immediately make its escape from the water it is devoured alive."


Roosevelt, T.




FROM FRANK MAGALLANES with input from (H.R. Axelrod, 1976, 1992)


The legend started with former President Theodore Roosevelt who planned and expedition to the innermost reaches of Brazil (circa 1913). The Brazilians were excited about the impending visit by this famous American president. They also knew he liked the thrill of the adventure. So they arranged a spectacular tour of their country through the Amazon rain forest. They also found a river that President Roosevelt could discover himself (later called Rio Theodore Roosevelt). This river is actually nothing more than an arm of another tributary, the Rio Aripuana. According to H.R. Axelrod, the former President was accompanied by a hundred journalists, many whom never had been in the jungle before. When the Brazilian's took Roosevelt to "discover" the Rio Theodore Roosevelt, the Brazilians were already prepared. They had isolated a hundred yards of that river with nets. For weeks fishermen caught piranha with hook and line, throwing the fish into this netted off area. Then the Brazilian instigated piranha myth began. The Brazilians told Roosevelt and his group not to venture into the water of this river because they would be immediately be attacked and eaten by piranhas. Roosevelt was skeptical, how could any fish be this dangerous. This played right into the Brazilians hands and their sense of humor. To validate their point, *they took a sick old cow, which was in season at that moment and whose main feature was that she had a heavy, bloody discharge, and drove her bleeding into a seething mass of starving, trapped piranhas. This entire scene was staged, according to Axelrod by the famous Brazilian ichthyologist  Miranda-Riberiro. For those wishing to read the Axelrod account of Roosevelt and how that story unfolded access this link: Breeding The Red-Bellied Piranha. *According to the book Oddballs Of The World, Axelrod is quoted as stating that the cow's udder was slit. 


No one can deny that the Roosevelt party suffered many injuries and death during their expedition of the uncharted Amazon. The former President himself, had illnesses that later ravished his body from that ill fated adventure. The idea behind this page is to illustrate how the American public first learned about piranhas and the dangerous associated with them.  Below account is taken from Tropical Fish Hobbyists author Herbert R. Axelrod and is largely based on his research of the incident pertaining to the cow that was eaten and later described by Roosevelt.


In the late 1960's the Roosevelt Amazon trip story and others, would be used to create legislation in the California court system in order to ban piranhas forever. (see Cold Water Tolerance of genus Pygocentrus). Other states would later follow the same path after reported captures of the deadly fish (they weren't piranha, but a vegetarian mimic) in local rivers. The news media usually repeated the same historical account of the piranhas, and more newspapers' sold and people's hysteria took over common sense and scientific fact.


Today, I still find people that believe such stories and consider the Hollywood films as accurate and a scientific fact. However, Dr. William L. Fink from the University of Michigan Neotropical Division had this to say: VIEW


As an example, when I am lecturing at a classroom of young students, they mostly all come in with the Rooseveltian belief of the piranhas gruesome nature. My first question to them is; "what is the most feared fish in the Amazon river?" and nearly every hand goes up and the answer the give is, "the piranha!" I then assure them that it is not the case and tell them about other fishes the Brazilian fishermen mostly fear, namely Candirú and stingray. And the real reason why these other fish are feared by people. It has nothing to do with the fishes need for flesh or the idea they dislike humans.


....It is indeed a shame we adults create such fears in children to begin with.



Even small piranhas under 1 inch should be treated with respect


OPEFE image showing a completely healed circular piranha-bite on the authors middle finger. This occurred in 1974 and required 3 stitches to close. The piranha was just over 2 inches long! The species was Pygocentrus nattereri. When dealing with piranha species the reader is reminded that the fish is unpredictable in most circumstances. The potential danger of piranhas are often times set up situations as described above. Humans have a habit of changing the natural order of things. In South America, the Indians habitually clean caught fishes and dump the fish entrails in the water. This then creates an artificial situation for piranha attack. This certainly causes piranhas or any other fish to "hang around" if it is done often enough in the same spot. This is called "a conditioned feeding response" and you can see the same results in the home aquarium. Ever see how captive fish react (including farm raised trout and salmon) when you approach the aquarium bringing them food? They have been conditioned to a ready food source. Piranhas act the same way, in this unnatural condition. Los Llanos in Venezuela is an example where the terrain has pretty much been reduced to cattle ranching due to human interference in the natural order of things. Many areas which would have originally prevented piranhas from being "trapped" in a secluded area because of river flooding are now a common thing. Human created watering holes for cattle once flooded during the rainy season often have an abundance of piranha afterwards that have been carried into these holes from the main river. Then when the dry season arrives these same watering holes become a very dangerous situation for any animal. Interestingly, it is also a food pond for caimans, otters, and birds all which certainly eat piranhas.


Have piranhas ever attacked live humans and eaten them? The answer is, no! There are no record of piranha killing live humans in South America. Instead, only a few examples of piranha bites from careless handling of the animal out of water demonstrates the potential for injury. Or in rare occasions a human being bitten in the water, in an area where cleaning of fish is routinely done by fishermen. There have been historical accounts of piranhas attacking Spanish Conquistadors, but the logical has been recognized that is was because they were wore "red trousers" while fording the river. Also, since Indians tried to drive off the Conquistadors with bows and arrows, some of these fellows fell into the river all bloodied. Of course, the piranhas feasted! Brazilian fishermen do use a red piece of cloth or piece of red meat to fish with and piranhas do react to this color! Yes, piranhas do see color.


It is also scientifically recognized that piranhas are a type of "health squad" that feeds on carrion. This is very important, because during river flooding many animals and humans drown. The piranhas and other fishes later come in and clean up the corpses. Piranhas have a keen sense of smell, equivalent to sharks and salmon. They can "smell" blood as far away as 1-2 miles from where the source is. They are also extremely fast swimmers and would arrive at a feeding frenzy in no time. Pygocentrus cariba, the Caribe Capa-Burro (donkey castrator) is notorious for being in schools of 30 or more waiting for baby birds to fall in the water. This happens because of bird droppings and the occasional juvenile bird falling into the river. That is how the hungry piranhas have become accustomed to this type of ready food source and the potential is there for you to get bit if you have a cut and it is bleeding.


Of the 30 or more species of piranhas only 3 are known to be potentially dangerous to humans under the conditions described above. These 3 species of piranha look similar, and belong to genus Pygocentrus. Piranhas generally feed on bits of fins and flesh. They do not habitually eat whole fish, thus leaving a ready food supply. I have talked with many a scientific investigator that are familiar with piranha behavior. They have been in the water with piranhas, fished for them and studied them. They all say the same thing, piranhas do not habitually attack humans, in fact humans eat more piranhas than the other way around! 


The piranha is a delicacy in South America and a staple food The remainder of the species feed on fruit, seeds, fins and scales of fish.


,,,it is indeed a shame that we have made the piranha a larger-than-life monster. 








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