Serrasalmus nattereri ferocious

Ferocious Piranhas: How Did They Get Their Scary Reputation?

When you hear the word piranha, in all likelihood, you may imagine a cartoonish, feral image of a crazed, carnivorous beast carving the water into a froth. And with only the tiniest drop of blood, the piranhas would be completely set off into a disastrous frenzy. Even worse, the piranha in mind is probably not on its own but one of a voracious group of its kind.

Perhaps, you’ll also imagine a fish with bulging eyes, razor-sharp fins, and gaping mouths. Falling into a piranha-infested water would ensure certain death, probably being eaten alive to the bone. Those thoughts are terrifying for sure.

But do those perceptions of piranhas live up to their real identity? Are they really as terrifying as how they are being portrayed on movies? How did this fish get a vicious character when most experts say they are shy swimming creatures? How did we come to fear the piranhas so much?

The Story Behind Their Scary Image

While there is some truth to the popular image of piranhas, it may be slightly exaggerated. In the west, their grisly reputation all started with Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States.

During a trip to the Amazon rainforest in 1913, he was introduced to the piranhas by the locals. At first, it was rumored that the fish would devour the first cow of any herd to cross the river due to their bloodthirst. However, it was found out that piranhas are actually omnivorous, which consume everything from seeds to fruits and leaves.

Apparently, the locals wanted to prepare a good show for their honorary visitor. So, they trapped some of the fish in a section of the river and left them unfed ahead of the state visit. When Roosevelt arrived at the town, he saw how the hungry piranhas went aggressive and wild when a whole cow was thrown into the river. The farm animal was rapidly eaten down to the bone, in a dramatic fashion.

This was the beginning of their notoriety in the US. Theodore Roosevelt documented what he had witnessed. His experiences were known when his book “Through the Brazilian Wilderness” was published in 1914.

Piranhas’ Fearsome Depiction Continues

But as far as the anti-piranha propaganda is concerned, Roosevelt’s book was just the beginning of fearing piranhas. This particular fish has since been depicted in various films, and their image has rarely been a flattering one. One of the first of these films was Piranha (1978), a comedy movie featuring flesh-eating piranhas that have escaped from a government research lab.

Next came Piranha II, The Spawning (1981), which features a string of mysterious piranha attacks. There is even a famous James Bond film, ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) in which a piece of meat is fed to a tank of pet piranhas who are owned by the main villain in the movie. A woman is later fed to the piranhas and doesn’t emerge from the tank alive.

But The Truth Behind It All

Filmmakers must have something against piranhas for implicitly labeling the fish as vicious animals. But is the much-maligned piranhas really as dangerous as they seem to be?

Serrasalmus nattereri - Actually a bit shy piranhas
Serrasalmus nattereri – Actually a bit shy piranhas

According to, piranhas do not deserve their fearsome reputation because they’re not entirely that aggressive. In a positive light, they can make great home pets. The key is to keep them well fed at all times. When they are being famished, that’s when you keep your distance from them.

Apparently, they are not the most difficult fish to keep alive. If you wish to keep some, it is important to take note of their preferred conditions and learn about the different varieties of piranhas available, as well as their characteristics. This is to make sure that you take care of the fish properly. Moreover, piranhas thrive better when they are in groups. They can be prone to fighting and killing one another if there is not enough fish or enough space to swim.

Piranhas At Home

Although piranhas are still known to be dangerous fish in the wild, piranha attacks are rare. Attacks that cause deaths are even rarer. Meanwhile, keeping them in captivity is a different story.

Through careful selection of breed, size of the tank, strictness of feeding regime and other factors, the degree of the piranha aggressiveness can be controlled. You can even ask for advice from breeders who have piranhas for sale. Check this website for more helpful tips. With a little serious work, you can be confident that piranhas can become the ideal pet for you.

In the video below, Jeremy Wade shows us in River Monsters how aggressive Piranha’s really are:

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