Thousands of you have already experienced vibrant dart frogs, adorably creepy axolotls, the terrifyingly awesome alligator snapping turtle, and dazzling fish from Africa, Asia, and South America in our new aquarium exhibit Weird & Wild: Colorful Freshwater Species from Around the World. One of the highlights of our new exhibit is a tank of beautiful red-bellied piranhas.
Piranhas, as you know, have a certain… reputation. They are commonly thought of as voracious predators – hunting in packs, ambushing hapless prey, tearing flesh from bone in a matter of seconds. Films like You Only Live Twice, countless cheesy horror movies, and the SyFy Channel’s sublimely ridiculous Piranhaconda haven’t helped.
Most of the blame for their terrible reputation, however, can be placed squarely on the adventurous shoulders of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1913, Roosevelt, Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon, and Roosevelt’s son Kermit explored the recently discovered (and ominously named) River of Doubt. The Brazilian government had invited the former president to explore the river, and the American Museum of Natural History sponsored the expedition. Roosevelt later recounted the events of his arduous journey in Through the Brazilian Wilderness, which included a number of lively descriptions of piranhas.
He wrote, “They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers – in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness.”
Roosevelt went on to say that the only good thing about piranhas is that they are delicious, even though they have too many bones.
Roosevelt was an excellent naturalist, but piranhas aren’t quite as voracious as he thought. And they are nowhere near as brutal as cheesy horror movie directors would have you believe. Piranhas can be dangerous when they are hungry, which is usually when water levels are low and food is scarce. They don’t seem to be attracted to the scent of blood, though splashing around gets them excited. Piranhas do have sharp teeth and powerful jaws and will eat larger animals like birds or capybara. They are also excellent scavengers. Piranhas are incredibly important to the health of South American waterways because they eat dead and dying creatures. For the most part though, piranhas eat fish (including other piranhas), worms, and freshwater crustaceans. Some piranhas are actually vegetarians, though reports of vicious attacks on shrubbery have not been confirmed.
We need your help. Our five, decidedly not vegetarian, red-bellied piranhas need a name. Not individual names like Bitey, Snappy, Chompy, Rippy, and Dave. They need a group name like “The Eatles” or “Piranha, Paul and Mary” or “Imagine Piranhas” or “Gladys Knight & the Piranhas” or “Ate Jimmy Eat World”. You can see why we need your help.
Think of a name for our small school of piranhas and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll pick a favorite and announce a winner on Monday, March 7. The winner will receive a special Discovery World prize package.
Weird & Wild: Colorful Freshwater Species from Around the World is presented by PPG.