(Photo: Ben Brain/Digital Camera Magazine, via Getty Images)
The New York Times Sunday Review is publishing my story on media hysteria over a recent piranha incident. We had to cut for length and that version works fine.
But here’s something a little longer, with various links, for those with an extra appetite for such things:
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 Read the rest of this entry »