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HOW DO MODERN SCIENTIST'S VIEW PIRANHAS TODAY?

 

Photo courtesy of University of Michigan

Dr.  William L. Fink

Photo courtesy of AQUA RAP.

Dr. Antonio Machado-Allison

 

«Piranhas» or «caribes» as they are commonly known, are the most notorious living aquatic animals in South America. The great speculation, tales with nonsense and fantastic stories grown around them exceeds their scientific knowledge. Their high diversity and predatory habits make them an important part of our aquatic communities. So far more than 30 nominal species have been recognized belonging to 4 genera: Pygopristis, Pygocentrus, Pristobrycon and Serrasalmus. The last one include de majority of the species.

 

 Machado-Allison (1982, 1985), recognized the monophyletic origin of this clade. However, some inner relationships still to solve. For example the condition of Pristobrycon, with species with pre-anal spines and no ectopterygoid teeth ( P. striolatus), and species with those conditions such as P. calmoni. Recently, Fink & Machado (1992), described 3 new species for Brazil and Venezuela: Pristobrycon careospinus, P. maculipinnis and Serrasalmus gouldingi. This report presents only in the Venezuelan species. We recognized 4 genera and 16 species in Venezuela. Pygopristis (P. denticulata); Pygocentrus (P. cariba); Pristobrycon (P. calmoni, P. careospinus, P. maculipinnis and P. striolatus); and Serrasalmus (S. altuvei, S. eigenmanni, S. elongatus, S. gouldingi, S. irritans, S. manueli, S. medinai, S. nalseni, S. neveriensis, and S. rhombeus). However, there are at least 2 more new(?) species that are share with the Amazon Basin of Brazil and Colombia. Also, we discuss aspects of their distribution on the Orinoco, Amazonas, Essequibo and Caribe Basins, and information on the feeding habits.

 

Any species of piranha should be considered potentially dangerous even though there is no record of attacks resulting in death by these fish on live humans. Reported injuries are those from fishermen (carelessly removing the fish from hook), or areas where the fish have been conditioned to a ready food source (ie., where fish are cleaned on a regular basis and entrails are thrown in the water) or recovery of drowned victims who were later skeletonized by these fishes. Piranhas are scavengers by nature, a finned health squad (Schulte 1988).

 

Historically, piranha attacks on live humans were based on over exaggerated stories of  Spanish conquistadors being eaten alive by these fish. An examination of historical accounts reveals that the fish attacked the conquistadors because of their wearing red trousers and blood in the water. Tales of their being eaten alive was actually more realistically attributed to the soldiers drowning then later being skeletonized by piranhas (Myers 1972, Schulte 1988 and  Schleser 1997). (SEE Myths about Piranhas started by Roosevelt).

 

My own experience with a piranha bite (which required 3 stitches) happened while transporting the fish from one aquarium to another (1973). The fish bit through the net being used to transport it, then landing in my hand. The bite was painless but bled copiously. It is for this reason the home aquarist should carefully handle their fish. It was the only time I have ever been bitten and it will be (hopefully) the last time. The pain itself lasted for about 6 months and took long for me to be able to bend that finger freely without pain. The piranha teeth may look small but that is not what makes them dangerous. It is the powerful musculature and razor sharp teeth with the ability to snap quickly and repeatedly that makes them capable of clipping off a portion of your flesh. Including bone and all depending on your fishes size.

 

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