First Live Pictures of Pristobrycon careospinus
“there is something down here in the deep end that looks like a piranha”
In the past four years swimming and fishing in most of the rivers across Venezuela, I noticed, and was surprised, that most of the rivers that I visited contained piranhas, and every different river area seemed to have a different species.
There are 13 species of piranhas described for Venezuela. They all belong taxonomically to the Serrasalminae subfamily. The 13aa species are categorized into four Genera which are Pygopristis, Pristobrycon, Pygocentrus, and Serrasalmus. The first two genera include piranhas whose diets alternate protein and fruits. The last two are the most carnivorous, only including fruits in their diets in extreme cases of lack of prey. The protein piranhas find in the rivers consist of scales of fish, fins of fish, fish as a whole and in special cases the carcass of any animal, mostly aquatic that has died or is too sick or old to escape the river before they can be bitten by a piranha.
As I could not identify most of the piranhas that I saw or caught I decided to ask Frank Magallanes of OPEFE, who was the “Piranha” person I knew at the moment. After a couple of pictures went back and forth by email, he told me to ask Antonio Machado – Allison for more information, for he was the biologist which had described and worked with many of the South American piranhas. Machado is one of the world experts in piranhas. So off I went to the Central University of Venezuela to meet Machado (Picture 1 UCV 003 and/or 2 UCV 009).
Once I got to know Machado, he was surprised to see how many pictures of different piranha species I had taken and asked me to look for more “rare” species. One of them was the Pristobrycon careospinus.
The Pristobrycon careospinus is a piranha that Machado had described with William Fink in 1992. The scientific work used to describe the species reads; “Live Coloration pattern: There is no information about the live coloration of this species. The only sample of this fish available was captured some time ago and no description of the pattern exists.” But the work did have the preserved coloration pattern “Alcohol Coloration pattern: The body is covered by irregularly placed oval spots having few below the lateral line. It also says; “Discussion: This species has been described based on only one sample from the Atabapo River in the Amazon State in Venezuela. The sample is, apparently, a preadult. The species shares with other members of this genera (P. striolatus and P. maculipinnis) the primitive condition of lacking a preanal spine, but, it differs from them in the oval spots coloration pattern.
Machado took me into the CUV biological museum, where the preserved holotype was, and took it out of the jar for me to take pictures of it to use as a field reference. Being there with the describer of the fish and taking pictures of a holotype (picture 3 Pristobrycon careospinus 138) of a fish that never had been seen alive made me wonder how I could arrange an expedition to photograph this rare piranha!
Knowing the locality in which it was collected, the body shape of the genera Pristobrycon, and knowing that it had oval spots on the upper part of its body seemed enough information for me to go out and look for the first live pictures of this piranha.
I set off on the expedition to look for the P. careospinus and started at the Northern City of Valencia, Venezuela. The road trip to the southern state of Amazonas took me around 12 hours, stopping only to go to the bathroom, buy a soda, or to stretch my legs while in the lines of cars where you have to wait to get your turn to put your car on the barge to cross the Cinaruco and Orinoco rivers, which still have no bridges over them in those remote areas (Picture 4 Chalana Cinaruco 496).
Once in the Amazon state, I contacted my good local friend Alipio, who is a fish collecting expert, and arranged the four-hour boat trip south to the Atabapo river. The next day we drove one hour south to the town of Samariapo and got on the boat that had two 150 hp. outboard motors on it. We were sailing at around 90 km. per hour down the Orinoco river (pictures 5 Orinoco 685 and/or 6 Orinoco 741) to the town of San Fernando de Atabapo (pictures 7 San Fernando de Atabapo 074 and/or 8 San Fernando de Atabapo 439). The town is located on a sort of triangular “tip” of land which has on the south side the Atabapo river, on the north side the Orinoco River and on the west you can see the Guaviare River and the Colombian shore.
Atabapo Day 1
As we walked around the small town, under many sporadic heavy rain showers. We asked the locals if they had seen our P .careospinus piranha by showing them the pictures of the holotype and reading the scientific description of the scientific papers. They all recognized that the piranha is locally called Maripano. We asked them where we could fish it, and they all came up with the same answer. “Come back in the dry season; at this time of the year (rainy season) it’s impossible to catch one.” Alipio and I were very overwhelmed to hear the same answer over and over and decided to try to fish one for a couple of days, and if no results were found by the 4th day, we would abort the mission.
Atabapo Day 2
The following day we woke up early in the morning and went to the “dock” where all the fishermen come to sell the fish that they catch (picture 9 San Fernando de Atabapo 436). After two or three hours of inspecting every boat that came in, we only saw one species of piranha which was large Serrasalmus rhombeus. Next, we contracted one of only five trucks that exist in the town to take us to a clear river. Our thoughts were to swim one mile up the river every day to see if we could spot the P .careospinus or at least any piranha.
We got all our gear on the flatbed off the truck and drove one hour inland to the river. Once there, we were overwhelmed to see that the small river’s water levels were so high, due to the heavy rains, that the whole jungle was underwater (pictures 12 Atabapo habitat 619 and/or 13,14,15). We were actually swimming in the flooded jungle, in between the tree trunks! After seven hours of swimming around, we found no trace of any piranha and went back into town on top of the flatbed under pouring rain.
Atabapo Day 3
Again we woke up early in the morning and went to the dock to check the fishing boats. Again, we only found large amounts of Serrasalmus rhombeus (pictures 10 Serrasalmus rhombeus 394 and/or 11 Serrasalmus rhombeus 396). As I was starting to get a little desperate, I offered the fishermen a “ransom” for the P.c. and took the flatbed truck out again to the clear river. The outside temperature in the rainy season was 29c and the water temperature was 23.8c. After more than four hours in the water, we would start shivering involuntarily because of the hypothermia. At moments it stopped raining for an hour or so and we quickly got out of the cold water to get warmed by the sunlight.
As soon as we got out of the water we started getting bitten by gnats and horseflies. There actually were so many horseflies that we started placing all the ones we swatted dead in a jar and counted around 27 to 36 a day. We decided to snorkel by night, thinking we had a better chance of spotting the P.c. if it was asleep. So we told our “driver” to pick us up in the flatbed at 9:00 at night. By 6:30 it was already pitch black, We decided to wait at least one hour to make sure that the fish had fallen “asleep”. At 7:30 we got in the water, each one of us with a flashlight. Immediately we noticed that the wildlife diurnal to nocturnal transition had happened. There were dozens of knife fishes, catfish, plecos, wolffish, rays, and crustaceans feeding and swimming around. We inspected the river until 9:00 when our “taxi” came to pick us up and found no trace of any species of piranha.
Atabapo Day 4
We woke up again, walked to the dock… again many Serrasalmus rhombeus. Not even the ransom “wanted dead or alive” had worked! Every fisherman told us to come back in the dry season. Again, we took our “taxi truck” to the river.
After swimming for a couple of hours in the cold water, Alipio and I sat down on the white silica sand riverbank and tried to come up with a different plan. We decided that he would swim upstream, and I would swim downstream. If we were to spot a piranha, we would scream out loud at the top of our lungs to be heard through the jungle.
I had a 14-pound lead belt on my waist, making it impossible for me to swim, so I actually had to bounce or jump to the water surface for air in the deeper areas of the river.
I had not even swum 100 yards down the river when I heard Alipio screaming “PIRANHA! PIRANHA!” As I swam closer to him he shouted out: “There is something down here in the deep end that looks like a piranha”. As I bounced my way in the deep end, I managed to get to where Alipio was, thinking that he had mistaken a piranha with a Silver Dollar. The current was very strong in this deep end. I managed to hold on to the only tree branch that was not covered in thorns, took a deep breath, and sank around six feet, with Alipio, underwater, where he pointed out a golden shiny fish far away in the jungle brush. As we came up for air, we decided to try to get through the “jungle” to get closer to the piranha. We both advanced, trying to push ourselves through the tangle of vines and branches. We didn’t advance two feet when my sides were full of large thorns of around one inch each (pictures 16 Atabapo thorns 332 and/or 17).
I looked at Alipio who also gave up and was taking thorns off that had gotten stuck to the top of his head! Immediately we decided that it was better if we would wait patiently to see if the piranha would swim out of the thorn tangle towards us. The trees above us made a perfect vault that let no direct sunlight in. It was actually really dark in that deep area. We were shivering uncontrollably as the strong current made us colder than in the slow-flowing places of the river. At that moment at least six horseflies were buzzing over our heads. It was a relief to our ears to sink underwater to try to spot the piranha for the buzz of the horseflies was pretty loud. I took a look around and saw a large Moriche palm trunk, I jumped my way to it and managed to “hug” it with my legs. This way I avoided being dragged by the current and had my hands free to hold the camera. This time, as I sank down to take yet another look from my new location, I saw the piranha right in front of me! It actually stopped for two or three seconds, let me take a picture, and left again into its tangled hideout. This happened and repeated around five or six times, in which I took a couple of pictures. Then, all of a sudden, it swam into the flooded jungle and we never saw it again.
Once I got back from the expedition
We spent the next two days trying to find the Pristobrycon careospinus with no luck. We even placed many types of bait with no luck.
Once I got back from the expedition I went to the UCV to show Antonio Machado the pictures of the piranha. As I went through the pictures he had a great smile on his face. I asked him “is it a P. careospinus?” and he said, “In so many years of working with piranhas, one thing that I have learnt to do well is to identify piranhas by pictures, and this is unmistakably a Pristobrycon careospinus”.