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DEFINITION OF COMMON NAMES OF PIRANHAS AND CARIBES
by Frank Magallanes, OPEFE
The native common name piranha and caribe are names that were determined by Dr. G. S. Myers (1949, 1960, 1965, 1972), to apply only to the potentially dangerous piranhas or true piranha in genus Pygocentrus of Brazil and surrounding areas. The common name caribe applies only to the potentially dangerous true caribe in genus Pygocentrus found in Venezuela. Native South American’s are the folks responsible for determining what a common name is for their native fish. You will occasionally read my use of piranha in describing all the species. Please be aware that the common name piranha and sometimes caribe is used here as a loose application only when addressing majority of these species. There is also legal precedent for these two (2) native common names as well (see State of Oregon vs. Magallanes, 1993).
First, let's pronounce the name correctly; it's "pee-ron-yah" or pih-ron-yah." The name comes from a hybrid language composed of Tupi-Guarani, split and combined to create one name (pira=fish...ranha or sanha=tooth).
Caribe; pronounced kah-ree-bay is a Spanish name derived from Caribbean Indians. Some authors have erroneously assumed that this name translates to cannibal however that is not the case. The Caribs were so named by the discoverer of Cuba, Christopher Columbus, and from the Spanish cariba, meaning a valiant man or brave man. They were man-eating cannibals in reality, and gave the English language that word by corruption and as a pun, caribal being transuded into cannibal in allusion to the canine voracity of the race. When the conquistadors saw the cannibalistic nature of the piranha fish and the feeding frenzy of the species, it only was natural, they used the epithet caribe or caribito (meaning little Carib) for the fish. The name remained locally though lesser known than the widely used name "piranha" which is frequently attached to all piranha-like fishes imported into the U.S.
Over the years, piranhas have been grouped in several scientific names, sometimes split apart then regrouped as a single genus. Today, scientists recognize 4 groups of fish which are represented by 4 names; Pygocentrus, Serrasalmus, Pygopristis, and Pristobrycon. The Indians of South America recognize piranhas by common names they use to describe the fish. I also think it wise to at least acknowledge that Venezuelan piranhas are called by Spanish names too, while the Brazilian portions of South America are called by Portuguese or Tupi-Guarani names.
The piranhas of Venezuela, Bolivia, parts of Rio Paraguay and Rio Paraña and Brazil are known collectively as;
genus Pygocentrus - mondogueros caribes, capa burro, pirañas, boca de la locha, palometa, palometa de rio, piranha.
genus Serrasalmus - pinches , caribes, palometa, pirambeba, muda
genus Pristobrycon - caribe morichalero, caribito, palometa,
genus Pygopristis - palometa, caribito, pirambeba.
Indian names lumped into a general usage: umati, bahumehi and a few more not listed here.
Northeastern Brazilian piranhas are known collectively as;
genus Pygocentrus - piranha, piranha verdadeira, piranha cachorra and other local dialect names. Genera; Serrasalmus, Pristobrycon, Pygopristis - pirambeba, piranha branca, piranha preta, these latter names pertain more to the color of the fish than actually referring to the species.
In Apure, certain species of Serrasalmus are called Pinches, Pirabembas in Brazil and Pinkge comes from the Indians of Veruros. This latter name is for the elongated Serrasalmus known Serrasalmus elongatus. (see Evencias, Fernandez-Yepez, 1951).
Natives also use names of fruit or seeds to describe the fish by its color or body shape; caju, paña, arri, katte, chitão, huma, arai, ciucoa, djuta, quexicuda, and pirai (reserved for the most dangerous piranhas in Guyana). Myers (1971, p.22-30) devoted several pages in discussing common name usage by natives of South America and how we (English-speaking people) tended to lump fishes into one name to cover all fishes in the subfamily Serrasalminae as commonly called piranhas. Myers cites some examples such as the fish called a perch.
When I faced Oregon courts over a confiscation of piranhas (2 of which I called Pirambeba) and the Oregon Revised Statute over usage of common names as applied to piranhas, we were able to cite a 1932 court action using a phrase "COMMONLY KNOWN AS" (Dutch Schultz vs. New York) . The phrase was used to determine the specifics of gambling and what terms were used by those who practiced gambling. In other words, people knowledgeable about gambling within the illegal gambling field. In the case of the Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) all the species of fish in the subfamily Serrasalminae (including vegetarian fishes not even considered as true piranhas by natives or science) were prohibited as dangerous and commonly called a piranha/caribe. The Oregon judge decided in my favor that the way the ORS law was written, it did not apply to the fishes in my possession commonly known as pirambeba and were NOT commonly known as "piranha" in South America. The district attorney representing the State of Oregon tried to insinuate in his opening remarks to the judge by saying......"if it looks like a duck and swims like a duck, then it must be a duck" to make the case the pirambebas were still piranhas. Of course that remark when it applies to the native name usage of a true piranha is not necessarily the case as we now know and legally proven.
I encourage everyone reading these web pages to visit the link citing the court action.
The OPEFE web site uses native common names whenever possible to help the student recognize what each species native name is. I do list common names applied by English-speaking people as well.
Myers, George S. (1972) - The Piranha Book (M-539), TFH Publications.
Magallanes, Frank (1993) -On Line: State of Oregon vs. Magallanes, Case No. 93-CR-0124VI, Roseburg, Oregon.
Fernández-Yépez, A. 1951 (Aug.) Serrasalmus pingke, un nuevo Serrasalmido para la fauna Neotropical. Evencias No. 12: 3 unnumbered.
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Created: December 5, 2002