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Attack of the Killer Journalists

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 3, 2014

Suriname (and Spring Lake) 854

Jan Mol and friend (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In the languid news week after Christmas, hungry media outlets swarmed with gnashing teeth over a report of piranhas attacking swimmers on a river in Argentina.  “Massive Piranha Attack ,“ cried The New York Post.  “70 Christmas Day Bathers Are Savaged,” added The (UK) Daily Mail, promising “the truth about the fish with a bite more powerful than a T-rex.”

Otherwise semi-sober outlets took a happy holiday from facts.  Discovery News attributed the “feeding frenzy” to “the Palometa jack (Trachinotus goodei), a species of piranha.” Readers may have been impressed by the use of the scientific name, unless they happened to recall that jacks are saltwater fish, unrelated to piranhas, and in any case not known to visit the site of the incident, 190 miles upriver from Buenos Aires.

But piranhas, or piranha-like entities, have always been among our favorite objects for sheer sputtering nonsense.  Theodore Roosevelt indulged, on a 1913 expedition in South America, glorying in the notion that piranhas were “the most ferocious fish in the world.”  And the “Piranha” movie franchise has repeatedly taken it to the bank, most recently with 2012’s “Piranha 3DD,” in which, if we can believe the plot summary on IMDB, “the piranha in Shelby’s vagina bites Josh’s penis, forcing him to wrestle with it round the room before finally having to chop the organ off with a knife.”

Good gracious, this is an awful lot for piranhas to live up to and, predictably, they disappoint.   Over the years, I have gone out of my way to test the colorful mythology of the ferocious piranha. At the Dallas Aquarium, for instance, I once climbed into a tank of hungry red-bellied piranhas. (They fled to the opposite corner.) In the Peruvian Amazon, I stood waist-deep in the Rio Napo while catching and releasing piranhas on a hook-and-line. (The nibbles were strictly of the usual kind.) In the flooded grasslands of Venezuela, I drove around tossing a chicken carcass into various bodies of water to time how long it took for the flesh-maddened swarms to strip it to feathers. (There was enough chicken left at the end of the day to feed a family of four.)

The point of this exercise, recounted in my book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time, was that piranhas do that swarming, blood-crazed, flesh-ripping thing only in a couple of rare circumstances, both involving a highly concentrated food source: They will swarm around bird rookeries, where the fledglings leaving the nest often tumble straight down into the water. And they’ll do it around docks where fishermen clean their catch and heave the guts into the water.

Otherwise, you can swim without fear.

One of the wolf fish we caught and ate on the Suriname expedition (Photo: Richard Conniff)

One of the wolf fish we caught and ate on the Suriname expedition (Photo: Richard Conniff)

I didn’t worry about piranhas, for instance, when the only place to bathe, on a recent trip deep into the backcountry of Suriname, was the river running past our camp.  To be honest, I was more nervous about wolf fish, which can weigh 80-plus pounds and have a nasty habit of lurking by riverbanks to lunge at anything that comes splashing into the water. I made a point of slipping quietly into my daily bath, with no happy splashing, and I forgot all about the piranhas.

Then one day, sitting in a canoe, I watched the fish biologist on our expedition, Jan H. Mol of the University of Suriname, pull a 12-inch-long black piranha out of the same water where we took our daily baths. As this extremely toothy creature wriggled in his hands, Mol started talking, in his somewhat ponderous way, about a paper he had published in 2006 in the journal Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment, complete with color photos of amputated toes.

Like me, Mol believes the piranha threat is wildly exaggerated. He has spent more than 20 years wading in South American rivers and hauling up every imaginable fish without ever being injured by free-swimming piranhas. “Free-swimming” is, however, the operative phrase there: If you get careless while trying to untangle one from a net, or you let one flop around the bottom of the boat, that’s when things can get painful.  As he spoke, Mol was using the soft pad of his index finger to hold down the piranha’s sharply serrated lower jaw and give me a better view.  It was a formidable mouthful.  But that index finger rather spoiled the effect of a recent study, in the journal Nature, which found that the black piranha’s bite is more powerful, pound for pound, than that of a great white shark or a killer whale.  Yes, yes, that article also mentioned T. rex, but “pound for pound” (or as the authors put it, “removing the effects of body size”) turns out to be another of those pesky operative phrases.

We chatted briefly about the classic studies by Brazilian researcher Ivan Sazima, who together with colleagues, spent more than 300 hours snorkeling in the clear-water ponds and creeks of the Pantanal, observing piranhas in their natural setting. Sazima found that these generally timid little fish mainly feed by nipping off fins and scales from passing fish, not by ripping their flesh. Sazima also once co-authored a paper with the lovely title “Scavenging on human corpses as a source for stories about man-eating piranhas.” It concluded that when human bodies turn up in the water with signs of piranha attack, it’s almost certainly because the piranhas were scavenging on people who were already dead.

Piranha smile (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Piranha smile (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Even piranha specialists would struggle to come up with a dozen cases over the past half-century in which multiple living human victims were injured. In the two cases Mol investigated in northwestern Suriname, one in the 1950s and the other in the early 2000s, most of the victims suffered a single relatively minor bite on the feet or legs. He found that in each case, there was a factor that attracted piranhas to the area — fishermen gutting their catch nearby or holiday visitors spilling food in the river. Mol theorized that the piranhas bit humans by accident at first, and then, recognizing a newly abundant food source, began to take advantage of it. Other fish specialists I spoke to or emailed the other day argued that those incidents, and the more recent one in Rosario, Argentina, were all cases of defensive biting.

Christmas Day was unusually hot in Rosario — about 100 degrees Fahrenheit — and people were crowding into the river. It’s also mating season for the three local piranha species. It’s likely, said Prosanta Chakrabarty, a fish biologist at Louisiana State University, that bathers inadvertently wandered into male breeding territories, provoking a brief but hostile response.

None of the attacks escalated into a classic piranha swarm. It wasn’t, as The Daily Mail reported, “like a scene from a horror film” with swimmers being “savaged by shoals of the razor-toothed fish,” which ripped away “chunks of their naked and exposed flesh.” Victims were able to walk back to the beach without being attacked by other piranhas. Other beachgoers were back in the water a half-hour later.

So what’s the bottom line on piranhas? “If something is potentially dangerous to humans, it will be dangerous in certain conditions,” Mol told me, as we sat in the canoe that day in Suriname. But those conditions are extremely rare, and the danger tends to be highly limited.

We ate the piranha for dinner that night, and I continued to bathe in the river.

But—and this is the thing about human nature–now and then I also paused to count my toes.


Richard Conniff, an award-winning science writer, whose books including Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals (Norton, 2009).  He is now at work on a book about the fight against epidemic disease. Please consider becoming an underwriter of this work. Click here to learn how.

5 Responses to “Attack of the Killer Journalists”

  1. Jenny R said

    Yeah I just heard about the attack on the “Piranha River” haha. It seems a bit IRONIC to me that these people were bathing in this river and they got attacked…. oh my gosh what a eye opener.. on.. piranha river.. sorry I just can’t get over this. Good article here though

  2. Rob said

    Sliding quietly into the river is a bad idea when trying not to get hit by an Anjumara (Wolffish, Hoplias Macrophtalmus). Quiet for you will still be easily noted by them. Not to mention their excellent eyesight (macrophtalmus = big eye). Making a big splash with you whole body is much better. They may mistake you for a cayman and quickly swim off.

  3. Stacey said

    Disappointed that in the Times you perpetuated one hysteria to marginalize the one about which you were writing. You failed to give the 800,000 dog bites perspective which reinforces the incorrect notion that people are in danger from dogs and that comparing dogs and piranhas is some how useful. Different species, different relationship to humans, domesticated vs. non-domesticated, different frequency of interactions with humans, etc. Here is a bit more about the statistic you used if you are curious. Thanks for an entertaining piece but please be mindful to not throw one animal under the bus to make a point about another. The dogs and their owners who are impacted but irrational fear of dogs will thank you!

  4. […] is titled Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time). We’ve also both made considerable effort to discount piranhas as a threat: They rarely attack humans, and they only do that crazed swarming thing where there is concentrated […]

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