Besides the Great White shark, it is one of the most feared animals on Earth. It has worldwide notoriety for its ability to strip large animals to the bone in seconds. Its legend has prompted horror films from Hollywood. Even its name sparks images of sheer carnage.
The best part? Its legendary temperament is almost entirely fictitious.
It is undeniably true that these brutal-looking fish are excellent hunters. With perfectly adapted teeth, if a piranha wants to take a bite out of something, it likely is going to happen. Matched with its speed and ability to leap out of water, it isn’t a mystery why people would prefer to stay away from its territory.
Yet, the real reason we all know its name is largely due to a myth. For decades upon decades the story has been that these immensely angry fish can strip a cow to a skeleton in seconds. Unfortunately for those that love a good horror story, both parts are false. Piranha’s are neither particularly angry or frenzy like mad at the first drop of blood. While it is true that an incident did occur featuring an unpleasant end for a cow, the entire event was staged.
The story takes us back to U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt. As the story goes, when the nature-loving president was visiting Brazil, the locals wanted to put on a good show. Fishermen captured hordes of piranhas that hadn’t eaten in some time, blocked off a section of the Amazon river, and then released the fish. Immediately after, they threw in diced up bits of cow. What happened? The incredibly hungry fish, now all crammed into one tight area, went absolutely haywire and a massive feeding frenzy began. Thus, the legend was born.
In reality, these fish are horrified of coming in contact with humans. Larger animals such as dolphins, birds and bigger fish regularly hunt them. This prompts piranhas to swim in schools for defense, not for offensive reasons. A large part of this predator’s existence involves being anything but a predator. Contrary to common belief, piranhas are omnivores, often scavenging on already dead prey, insects and plants.
While those that swim in piranha-filled waters occasionally get nipped, it remains unproven that even a single human has been killed by the irrationally feared fish. Not only could you dip your hand into piranha territory without being bitten, you likely could swim in such areas daily without so much as seeing the fish. While it certainly is not recommended as accidents can happen, that’s how little of a threat piranhas actually are.
Well-evolved hunters? Absolutely. Threat to humanity? Only in Hollywood.