Sure, piranhas look scary with all of those sharp teeth. Sure, Hollywood wants to paint them as man-eating horrors that’ll turn a river red with blood within seconds.
It turns out, though, that they’re not the villains we’ve tried to cast them as all of these years – and to blame we have none other than one Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy set out on an expedition down the Amazon’s “River of Doubt” after losing the 1912 presidential election to Woodrow Wilson – an expedition that went horribly wrong. The group of 19 men battled disease, injury, food shortages, exhaustion, drownings, and murder. In the end, only 16 of them returned alive.
Roosevelt himself returned with an infected leg wound that nearly cost him his life.
Brazil, however, was honored by the visit of a North American statesman and wanted to impress Roosevelt with some real, local entertainment.
Local fishermen used nets to block off about 300 feet of the Rio Aripuana and then loaded the area with hundreds of piranhas. In anticipation of the visit, they didn’t feed the fish, and when Roosevelt arrived, they regaled him with tales of the river’s ferocious inhabitants.
Their audience looking on, the locals shoved an old, sick cow into the river and let the starved fish do their worst. Splashes rippled the river’s surface and a cloud of murky red blood spread through the brackish water, and moments later, they hauled a completely picked-clean skeleton from the water.
As you can imagine, it left quite an impression. He wrote about the experience in his book, 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. …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.”
Even though piranhas can and have attacked humans, a 2003 study found that there were few, if any, cases of humans being consumed by the carnivorous fish. The majority of those instances were of corpses being eaten, not live people.
Most injuries to human are the result of a single bite, so if you want to take a swim in a river also occupied by piranhas, you’re likely safe. Piranhas, like most predators, prefer an easy, small meal to one that takes a great amount of work.
That said, mind your appendages in the Amazon. There’s more than one species down there that could take a bite.