By Ivan Mikolji / 2008
After many years of swimming and fishing in most of the rivers across Venezuela I noticed and was surprised that most of the rivers that I visited housed piranhas. Every different geographical area seemed to have different species most of which I could not identify using conventional aquarium atlases. As I could not identify most of the piranhas that I saw or caught in the wild I decided to ask George Fear of Shark Aquarium and Frank Magallanes of OPEFE which were the two “Piranha” people which I knew at the moment. After a couple of pictures went back and forth by email, Magallanes told me to ask Prof. Antonio Machado – Allison for more information. Machado is the Biologist which described and worked with many of the South American Piranha species. Machado is one of the leading world experts in piranhas. So off I went to the Central University of Venezuela to meet Machado.
Meeting the Piranha Expert
Once I got to the Central University of Venezuela and showed Machado my video and photographic work, he was surprised to see how many pictures of different piranha species I had taken. Machado also took the time to teach me a couple of things about Piranhas and gave me a copy of his piranha book called Los Peces Caribe de Venezuela (Piranhas from Venezuela). Machado explained to me… “There are 13 species of piranhas described for Venezuela. They all belong taxonomically to the Serrasalminae subfamily. The 13 species are categorized in 4 Genera which are Pygopristis, Pristobrycon, Pygocentrus and Serrasalmus. The first 2 genera include piranhas whose diets alternate protein and fruits. The last 2 are the most carnivorous, only including fruits in their diets in extreme cases of lack of pray. The protein piranhas find in the rivers consist of fish scales, fish fins, fish as a whole and in special cases the carcass of any animal, mostly aquatic, that has died or is to sick or old to escape the river before they can be bitten by a piranha.”
After reading Machados’ excellent Piranha book, I noticed that there were many species of piranhas that had never been photographed alive before, not even in an aquarium, one of them being the Pristobrycon careospinus. I also learned that Pristobrycon careospinus is a piranha which Machado had described with William Fink in 1992.
ABOVE: Entrance to the Institute of Tropical Zoology of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV).
The scientific work used to describe the species on the book reads; “Live Coloration pattern: There is no information about the live coloration of this species. The only specimen of this fish available was captured some time ago and no description of the pattern exists.” But the scientific document 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 read; “Discussion: This species has been described based on only one specimen from the Atabapo River in the Amazon State in Venezuela. The specimen apparently is a preadult. The species shares with other members of this genera (Pristobrycon striolatus and Pristobrycon maculipinnis) the primitive condition of lacking a preanal spine, but, it differs from them in the oval spots coloration pattern.
ABOVE: Holotype of the Pristobrycon careospinus
A year later I met with Machado again and told him I was interested in trying to get the first live pictures of the Pristobrycon careospinus not only of it in an aquarium or holding it in my hand, but underwater in its natural habitat. Before being able to do this I needed his expertise on where to start looking for it and how to identify it in the wild if I happened to run across it.
Machado then kindly took me into the UCV biological museum where the preserved holotype was and took it out of the jar for me to take pictures of it to use as field reference. I felt very lucky of finding such a humble person as Machado which was so receptive of my work and willing to do and share all his knowledge with me. Being there with the describer of the fish and taking pictures of a holotype 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 Pristobrycon careospinus 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.
ABOVE: Ichthyology Museum of the Central University of Venezuela.
I set off on the expedition to look for the Pristobrycon 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 in the lines of cars to put your car on the barge to cross the Cinaruco and Orinoco rivers. In these remote areas some rivers still don’t have bridges over them.
ABOVE: A barge takes the cars and trucks across the Cinaruco River.
ABOVE: A local girl takes an afternoon bath in the Cinaruco River.
ABOVE: San Fernando de Atabapo, Venezuela, in the rainy season.
Once in the Amazon state I contacted my good local friend Alipio which is a fish collecting expert and arranged the 4 hour boat trip south to the Atabapo River. The next day we drove 1 hour south to the town of Samariapo and got on the boat which had two 150 hp. outboard motors on it. The boat went down the Orinoco River at around 90 km. per hour to the town of San Fernando de Atabapo. The town of Atabapo is located on a sort of triangular “tip” of land which has on the southern limit the Atabapo River, Northern limit, the Orinoco River and on the western side you can see the Guaviare River and the Colombian shore.
ABOVE: A fast speed boat reduced what regularly was an 8 hour boat trip to 3 hours.
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 Pristobrycon careospinus piranha by showing them the pictures of the holotype and reading the scientific color pattern description. The locals said that the piranhas local common name was Maripana. We also 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 fish one.” Alipio and I where 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 local fishermen sell the fish they catch. After two or three hours of inspecting every boat that came in we only saw one species of piranha which was large Serrasalmus rhombeus commonly called the red eyed or Black Rhom Piranha in the aquarium hobby. Next we contracted one of the only 5 trucks that exist in the town to take us to a clear river. Our thoughts where to swim 1 mile up and down the river every day to see if we could spot the Pristobrycon careospinus or at least any other species of piranha.
ABOVE: Alipio standing in front of a tree at San Fernando de Atabapo Square. It is incredible to see the amount of epiphyte plants that grow on top of the trees.
We got all our gear on the flat bed of the truck and drove 1 hour inland to the river. Once at the river we were overwhelmed to see that the small rivers waters levels where so high because of the heavy rains that the whole jungle was under water. 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, only to find large amounts of Serrasalmus rhombeus. As I was starting to get a little desperate I offered the fishermen a “reward” for the Pristobrycon careospinus 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 of snorkeling we started 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 (no-see-ums) and horseflies. There actually where so many horseflies that we started placing all the ones that we swatted in an old tin can and counted around 27 to 36 a day. I looked at the expiration date on my repellent to see if that was the reason why it wasn’t deterring the insects. Alipio told me that the Amazon gnats are not affected by the repellent. With a great smile on his face he said “The repellent actually makes them stronger”!
That afternoon Alipio and I decided to snorkel by night thinking we had a better chance of spotting the Pristobrycon careospinus if it was asleep. So we told our “driver” to pick us up in the flatbed at 9:00 at night. At 6:30 it was pitch black, we decided to wait at least one hour to make sure that the fish had fallen “asleep”. Time went by slow sitting in the absolute darkness in the middle of the jungle. I had never heard so many frogs, toads and insects singing at such high volume at a single time. I felt like I was listening to an out-of-tune orchestra, with all the wildlife playing their own melody with no director to guide them. 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 knifefishes, catfish, plecos, wolfish, rays and crustaceans feeding and swimming around. It seemed like a completely different river. We inspected the river until 9:00 when our “taxi truck” came to pick us up, but unfortunately we found no trace of any species of piranha.
ABOVE: A large Serrasalmus rhombeus. The coin on it is a little over an inch in diameter (2.8 cm.)
ABOVE: A Batrochoglanis raninus is one of the many nocturnal catfish we found swimming by night in the river.
Atabapo day 4
We woke up again, walked to the dock… again to see many Serrasalmus rhombeus. Not even the reward “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 make a different strategic plan. We decided that he would swim upstream and I would swim downstream. If we where 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 which made it impossible for me to swim, so I actually had to bounce my way down the river and jump my way up to get air in the surface in the deep areas.
I had not even “jumped” one hundred 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 jumped my way in the deep end towards Alipio the thought in my mind was that Alipio 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 sunk around six feet. Alipio submerged himself too and he pointed out a golden shinny fish far away in the jungle brush. As we came out for air, we decided to try to get through the “jungle brush” to get closer to the piranha.
ABOVE: Pristobrycon careospinus in its Morichal natural habitat.
We both advanced, trying to push ourselves through the tangle of vines and branches with water up to our necks. We didn’t advance two feet when my sides where full of large one inch thorns. I look at Alipio which had also given up and was picking thorns off the top of his head! We decided that it was better if we waited patiently to see if the piranha would swim out of the underwater thorn tangle towards us. The trees above us made a perfect vault which let no direct sunlight in. It was very 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. So... we were full of thorns, freezing, and to make things worse there where at least 6 horseflies buzzing over our heads. It was a relief to our ears to sink underwater for the buzz of the horseflies was very loud and was driving us crazy. I sank my head in the water and saw a large fallen 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. As I sank down to take another look from my new location I saw the piranha right in front of me. It actually stopped for two or three seconds, just enough time to let me take a picture and left again into its tangled hideout. Eventually it came out in the clear a couple of times and then, it swam into the flooded jungle and we never saw it again.
We spent the next 2 days trying to find the Pristobrycon careospinus with no luck. We even tied many types of bait to submerged roots and tree trucks with no luck.
ABOVE: Underwater picture of the spiny brush.
ABOVE: Pristobrycon careospinus in its Morichal natural habitat.
ABOVE: Pristobrycon careospinus in its Morichal natural habitat.
Once I got back from the expedition I went to the UCV to show Machado the pictures of the piranha. As I went through the pictures he had a great smile on his face. I asked him “is this a Pristobrycon 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." The positive identification of my findings from an expert Biologist as Prof. Antonio Machado - Allison is certainly one of the things that will keep me investigating the rivers from Venezuela for some time to come.
BELOW: First video in the world of Pristobrycon careospinus.
ABOVE: Pristobrycon careospinus close up.
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