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How a President Propagated a Piranha Myth

Posted on Feb 16, 2018 by in Education, Species Highlights

Redbelly Pirahna

Blockbuster thrillers like Jaws have given sharks an undeserved reputation as aggressive, man-eating killers. Similarly, stories about piranhas have portrayed this fairly calm species as bloodthirsty animals to be feared.

So where did this myth begin?

In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt made a trip to Brazil. To impress the adventurous former American President, locals took him deep into rainforest and allowed him to “discover” a river there but warned him not to venture in. What he did not know was that they had stocked the waters with unfed piranhas. To illustrate the dangers for the former President and accompanying journalists they threw a cow into water filled with starving piranhas. (Was it a dead cow? Bloody bits of diced meat? A sick cow? This detail seems to change from story to story.)  Within moments there was a massive feeding frenzy.

Roosevelt went on to record his amazement of these seemingly perfect killing machines in his travel memoirs, which the American population devoured and became weary of the species. In 1914’s “Through the Brazilian Wilderness”, Roosevelt noted the following:

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 . . . 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.”

Although not based on real-world circumstances, Roosevelt’s vivid account the experience has only gained momentum over the years. Once Hollywood latched onto the myth and created the 1987 film “Piranha,” the unfortunate characteristic stuck.

In truth, piranhas are relatively calm until spooked. This animal can be skittish, especially if there are a larger number of them in one exhibit. The Red-Bellied Piranha, native to South America, feed on fish, snails, insects and aquatic plants, only occasionally eating larger mammals and birds.

We caught up with Connor while he was feeding our red-bellied piranha and asked him for the real story behind these beautiful fish.

Curious to learn more? Check out:

– Morgan Wright