Behind the biting lines
Sure, piranhas bite, but, so do humans! Think Luis Suarez at the World Cup. The Uruguayan footballer even has a bizarre bite trilogy to his name. Moving on to an even more fascinating subject of piranhas, they are real. The freshwater fish is not just an imaginary subject cooked up for the 1978 cult classic, named after the fish.
Mostly found in the South American freshwaters, the piranha does not have the Finding Nemo reputation. The original film terrorized the masses with the gory portrayal of the fish attacking unsuspecting swimmers. Piranhas are often portrayed as flesh-eating predators, reputed for devouring humans and whole cattle alike.
Fun fact: Did you know that a certain US President also fell prey to the piranhas? Well, not in a way that you would think, but Theodore Roosevelt encountered the species during a trip to Brazil and went on to write about it in his book, “Through the Brazilian Wilderness”. The US President was taken to a dangerous river where he was ‘made’ to witness the viciousness of the piranhas. What he didn’t know was that the river was stacked with unfed piranhas. So, when a cow was dropped into the river and devoured, it took the President by shock.
He wrote in his book, “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 piranha is a short, deep-bodied fish, with a blunt face and a heavily undershot or projecting lower jaw which gapes widely. 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.”
The piranha diet
But, the question is, are piranhas that evil or dangerous as they are painted to be? Piranhas indeed have sharp teeth and are generally carnivores. While some are cannibals, there are also the omnivorous sub-species. These generally feast on smaller fish, freshwater insects, fish, crustaceans, worms, carrion, seeds and other plant material. Then there are the plant-lovers surviving on vegetarian offerings of the river. Take the Amazonian rapids inhabiting the Trombetas basin in Pará for instance. Marine biologists have found that the Tometes camunani survives entirely off of riverweeds.
The new vegetarian species
In 2016, scientists discovered several specimens of the red-bellied pacus, a close relative of the piranha. The Piaractus brachypomus was found in Lake St. Clair and Port Huron in southeastern Michigan. Nicknamed the “Vegetarian Piranhas”, these have strong square human-like teeth used for crushing seeds and nuts. Some were even able to remove the nuts from shells before consuming them.
It seems, Darwin was right after all, evolution is indeed the key.