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The Truth about the Red-Bellied Piranha

Are piranhas as fierce as they’re often made out to be in pop culture? Maggie H. dispels some of the myths and tells you how a President was responsible for their frightening reputation while feeding the red-bellied piranhas at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.

Some people think is the red-bellied piranha is the scariest fish here at the Aquarium. Piranhas have gained a bad reputation for viciously devouring anything in their path within mere seconds, but are they actually as scary as everyone thinks they are? The short answer is no. These fish get a bad reputation in part because of some exaggerated claims made about them following one of Teddy Roosevelt’s expeditions to the Amazon. His guides showed him starving piranhas taking down a large animal in a short period of time. The widely circulated story from the President’s trip inspired a 1970s’ horror movie that only confirmed people’s suspicions that the piranha was a man-eating terror.

This is a gross misrepresentation of a beautiful and usually quite docile fish.

Piranhas are native to the Amazon River Basin where they struggle to survive changes to their habitat during the dry season. This land can go for months without rain at certain times of the year, reducing the piranhas’ normally large swimming areas to small, stagnant pools that are little bigger than puddles. These conditions make competition for food and resources fierce as the fish can go for a long time without a meal. So, if something falls in the water, the hungry fish will use their strong jaws and razor-sharp interlocking teeth to rip it apart as quickly as possible to get their fill.

They tend to travel in groups more for protection than to take down larger prey, but then end up stuck in these ever-shrinking pools together trying to fend off starvation.

So, while people tend to think of these fish as fearsome predators, they are actually very valuable to their ecosystem as scavengers. They are opportunistic feeders with a very varied diet. Although they might hunt for small fish insects and invertebrates, they also consume carrion and even plant matter. Piranhas have also been known to nip at the fins of some larger fish for sustenance. The red-bellied piranha at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, eat a mix of fish shellfish and a special very nutritious gel diet.

While stories in the media have portrayed these fish as ferocious killers that should be feared, they are actually quite docile when well fed and will avoid conflict if possible. I hope I’ve debunked some of the myths surrounding these widely misunderstood creatures.

Make sure to check them out on your next visit to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. We look forward to seeing you soon!  

Where to find @CLEaquarium: Tropical Forest Gallery

Author: Maggie H. 

No popsicles needed . . . a blue-tongued skink sticks out its naturally blue tongue to scare away predators. Learn more about reptiles and lizards at our daily animal encounters.

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