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Reality Bites: The Sharp Truth About the Piranhas of the Amazon

A few months ago I found myself face to face with a school of piranhas, and lived to tell the tale. OK, the little buggers were in a tank at Parque Explora in Medellin, Colombia, whose unusual aquarium is devoted to Amazonian fauna. Common throughout the Amazon and its connected rivers – some of which are in Peru and Colombia but most of which of course fall within the borders of Brazil, the silvery shapes flitting by were mesmerizing but didn’t look particularly threatening  - but then I remembered a souvenir my mom and dad once brought back from an Amazon cruise: a piranha skull with some mighty wicked-looking toothies.

Indeed, it’s those pointy little choppers that have fueled piranhas’ legendary rep as vicious predators that can strip a cow (or person) clean in a matter of minutes - and spawning some pretty awful movies (right) along the way. A lot of that, It turns out, is myth. Most of the 20 or so species swimming around out there are pretty shy and rarely attack humans. Many, many locals swim and wade in Amazonian waters without incident, and most of the bites reported tend to be around docks where fishermen are gutting their catch, spilling blood and guts in the river. In fact, the scary rep is pretty much singlehandedly (singlefinnedly?) the doing of one particular species, the red-bellied piranha (above). Having said that, every once in a while stuff does happen – not long ago in Caceres, in the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, piranhas suddenly started showing up at a popular river swimming beach and taking nips — well, sometimes entire toes and such. A friend of mine who was in the area recently says that local fishermen have shrugged it off as an isolated incident, and sure enough, it seemed to subside.

But on the whole, experts say, piranhas are pretty much just regular ol’ fish with slightly larger teeth, and a necessary part of the food chain in parts of South America (including landing on humans’ dinner plates; my aforementioned friend tells me they’re absolutely delicious broiled, grilled, in soup, and so on). If you do venture into Amazon waters, you can even take some effective precautions, such as not swimming or wading with a bleeding cut or during the dry season (when waters are low), and keeping splashing and thrashing around to a minimum. Not that I’m suggesting swimming with piranhas, of course, just saying that locals have found ways to coexist with these little buggers for centuries.

photos:  Jonas Hansel, Wikipedia

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