Piranhas Aren't so Scary, Really

Many people are frightened by the word "piranha." These fish have gotten a bad reputation from books, television, and movies, where they are usually depicted as enemies of unwary human swimmers.

The truth is that piranhas, like most other predators, are very unlikely to attack something so much bigger than themselves. They are meat-eaters, but their diet consists almost entirely of smaller fishes. Some piranhas are even vegetarians (plant-eaters).

Piranhas are native to the warm waters of northern South America, particularly the Amazon River Basin of Brazil. There are 16 kinds (species) of piranhas, and they come in several colors: white, red, spotted, and black. The largest kind grows two feet long, but most are no larger than 15 inches.

Piranhas are excellent, fast swimmers. They travel in groups, or schools. They have small, heavy mouths and powerful jaws. Their lower and upper teeth interlock like shears.

The natives of South America work and bathe freely in rivers where piranhas live. They have no fear of these fishes. In fact, piranhas are a sought-after food item.

PIRANHAS were sold as aquarium fish in the United States until 1961. That's when further importation of wild piranhas was banned by federal law passed by the US Congress.

When regularly fed and not in a school, piranhas were not as aggressive as those in the wild and adapted well to life in an aquarium. Their gentler side is shown in the parental care they give their young.

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