The first time I bought a piranha I was about 8 years old. I was at a pet shop and one of their aquariums had a sticker on the front glass which read “DANGER HANDS OFF, Donkey Castrator Piranha.” My eyes opened wide and in milliseconds, I knew I had to have it! The salesman placed triple bags, one inside of another, just in case it bit through the first bag. I was amazed: none of my guppies, mollies, or any other fish I had bought before had ever needed that! He also used a plastic kitchen strainer to catch it because he said it would eat the mesh off a regular aquarium net. I was so excited! I was buying a MONSTER!
Once at home I released him from the bag with extreme care. I truly thought it was going to jump out of the aquarium and bite me. It was a small juvenile Pygocentrus cariba (Black Spot Piranha), and after days of it hidden, frightened behind aquatic plants, and not tearing apart the raw chicken leg or half pound beef steak I threw in the aquarium, I made up my mind that they had sold me a defective fish. I wound up going back to the pet store, begged them to take back the defective fish and exchange it for Cardinal Tetras.
I am so lucky to live in a country which is plagued with piranhas. You can say it is Piranha Land. In Venezuela, piranhas are found in five of our seven freshwater basins. Because the word “piranha” is a non-scientific term, there could be a debate about which fish qualify, or can enter the piranha club. Some scientists do not include Catoprion mento, the Wimple piranha, in the club, and some people alienate Pygopristis denticulata, the Lobetoothed piranha, as well. Taxonomically speaking, they are all part of the Serrasamidae family, which requires having a serrated keel running along the belly. Pacus and Silver Dollars also have this keel, so they are accepted in the club, next to piranhas, as well.
When I am swimming in a river, looking at all the fish, their behavior, and feeding habits, I sort of make my own piranha classification. To me, to this date, there are 17 species of described piranhas in Venezuela and one that needs to be described yet (sp. Amazonas). My piranha club member list would include: Catoprion mento, Pygocentrus cariba, Pygopristis denticulata, Pristobrycon calmoni, P.careospinus, P.maculipinnis, P.striolatus, Serrasalmus altuvei, S.eigenmanni, S. elongatus, S.gouldingi, S. irritans, S. manueli,S. medinai, S. nalseni, S. neveriensis, S.rhombeus, and S. sp Amazonas. There are also species that need to be revised like S.rhombeus which we have encountered many variations of in the wild including some with yellow eyes. Serrasalmus neveriensis is also a species that needs to be reviewed. There are doubts if they are really S. medinai which have been introduced into a new basin by humans.
Once you fish, observe, study, and keep many different species of piranhas, you start to understand them. Pygocentrus cariba can be kept in schools. When there are many of them together it becomes quite a site to see them feed. They will show the classic feeding frenzy behavior we expect from piranhas. Serrasalmus irritans have to be kept alone. If they are placed with other S. irritans they will slowly but surely eat themselves to death. Catoprion mento are lepidophagus piranha which means they are parasitic fish which eat other fish scales. Catoprion mento will nip other fish fins and bite their scales off, no matter how big their tank mate victims are. Pygopristis denticulata are omnivorous. I have seen them in the wild, chomping on seeds, flowers, and attacking other fish to nip their fins as well.
It was Frank Magallanes of Opefe that got me into the piranha world in the first place. Since our first email on February 10th, 2006, he made me realize that there was an important scientific side of the aquarium hobby that was not much talked about in the aquatic forums I was member of. Since that day, he gave me a lot of advice that only great friends that care give you. Thanks to him, I am writing this article today.
Later on and by Frank Magallanes advice I contacted Prof. Antonio Machado-Allison form the Institute of Tropical Zoology of the Central University of Venezuela. One of his first suggestions was for me to look for Serrasalmus nalseni, a very rare piranha. He told me that the original holotypes and paratypes in the Central University of Venezuela’s ichthyologic museum had been lost, so they needed voucher specimens and live color images to re-describe the species. I sought out to look for images of this elusive and unknown piranha in the wild, and succeeded. Actually, the Practical Fishkeeping website was the first to publish my findings back in 2007.
Dedicating myself to photographing and videoing fish in the Serrasalmidae family gave me a “piranha man” reputation. Adding to the saga were my first live images of Serrasalmus nalseni, S. sp Amazonas, S.neveriensis and Pristobrycon careospinus. I also published a very rudimentary documentary called “Piranha 1 Documentary” where I showed many species of piranha underwater in their natural habitat. I still have some piranha archenemies which have been very elusive or live too far away to photograph or video them. WANTED ALIVE: Serrasalmus altuvei, S. eigenmanni and S.gouldingi and S. manueli. Hopefully, someday, I will get a chance to meet them personally in their homes.
As usual, I have to emphasize on the need to promote piranha scientific studies. As my motto implies: “You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists.”
What we know about piranhas is only the tip of the iceberg. A good species to start with would be Serrasalmus neveriensis, which is endemic to a few short rivers from the Caribbean coastal basin at the end of the Maritime Andes in Venezuela. These piranhas are the most threatened piranha species and should, in my opinion, be awarded the status of threatened and be placed on a red list of some sort. Their small habitats are being destroyed by industrial and city raw sewage.
The second species to follow with would be Serrasalmus nalseni, which is also endemic to a few small rivers in the Orinoco Delta. These small streams have undergone very large, extensive, oil spills in the past years and nobody has even gone to see if they went extinct. There is no government funding, no private funding, and no interest. People in charge of protecting our flora and fauna do not even know they exist.
It makes me so sad to write about this. Of course, to save a piranha, you also have to study all the other species to be able to see the big and small picture, as well.
Piranha Habitats in Venezuela
Piranha habitats in Venezuela are extremely diverse because they are found in most aquatic biomes and ecosystems around the country. The most abundant and wide spread piranhas in Venezuela are Pygocentrus cariba, followed by Serrasalmus irritans and S.rhombeus. They inhabit white water, black water, green water, blue water, and clear water… all the waters.
All piranhas in Venezuela live in a pH under 7, except Serrasalmus neveriensis, whose biotope waters are mostly alkaline year round due to the presence of limestone in their ecosystem geology.
Piranhas: freshwater’s canary in a coal mine
Piranhas in their habitat are very susceptible to poor water quality and low oxygen levels. They are one of the first fish to die in highly fish packed seasonal pools in the dry season. If something is wrong or affecting an ecosystem, they are the first affected. In this sense, they are like the canary in a coal mine. Piranhas are great biological indicators of a habitats’ well being.
Piranha: Predator or prey?
One of the most incredible piranha things I have seen in the wild are how Olivaceous cormorant birds (Neotropic cormorant) prey on piranhas. You can see them swimming in white water, which resembles a cappuccino coffee. All you can see are their necks and heads sticking out of the water, like submarine periscopes. All of a sudden, they submerge. And then, after a minute or so, their periscopes emerge again from the silty river. This time they have a Pygocentrus cariba or Serrasalmus rhombeus in their mouths. I am sitting there on the Orinoco River bank with a skeptical look on my face. I think to myself… “They are not going to swallow that thing alive! It does not make any biological evolutionary sense to put your body at such risk. There is no way… OH MY GOD! They ate them, whole and alive!” I stand up and start clapping, giving them a standing ovation, just like a great perilous circus act. I keep standing on the river bank, observing how they keep on catching and swallowing live piranhas. After eating their fill, they fly to a nearby tree, to take a nap. Now that is an all you can eat challenge, right?
So, the next time you find yourself at the pet store looking for your next fish, even if you are very tempted, do not buy the flying, explosive piranha species. They could fly out of your aquarium and blow up your television.
This article has been published at:
- Practical Fishkeeping Magazine – Spring 2015