Piranha Land

By Ivan Mikolji / 2015

ABOVE: Prof. Antonio Machado–Allison (left) with George Fear (right).
 

Prof. Antonio Machado-Allison, a world leading piranha expert, once told me, “Piranha is an indigenous name applied to some sort of fish that have the capacity or capability to eat meat.” So, before we get immersed into the piranha world, you have to keep in mind that the word “piranha” is not a scientific term, it is a common name whose terminology gets personalized by cultural influences. To me, a piranha is a South American fish, in the Serrasalmidae family, with sharp teeth, should be able to bite me, and “look like” a piranha. Due to their wide distribution throughout most of South America, they go by many common names, the most popular being pirañas (pee-raw- nyahs), pirambebas and in Venezuela, caribes (cah-ree-bays).

ABOVE: Detailed photograph of a wild Redeye Piranha, Serrasalmus rhombeus, Carabobo, Venezuela.

Most people think that there is only one type of piranha, the mean man eating machines. In the aquarium hobby, we are a bit more aware of fish diversity and how fish behavior can be blown out of proportion. To some extent Hollywood movies have stigmatized piranhas to the vast population as evil fish that have the objective of eliminating humans from the face of the earth. I got the chance to see one of these movies in which piranhas had a particular preference in eating beautiful young women in bikinis. Towards the end of the movie, piranhas had the ability to fly and explode. Now, for us aquarists this type of movie will either insult our intelligence or make us laugh at the ridiculousness but to the non-aquarist a subliminal negative perception will still be left in their subconscious. 

ABOVE and BELOW: Freshwater underwater photographs of wild Black Spot Piranhas, Pygocentrus cariba, schooling in their natural habitat, Apure, Venezuela.

 

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 exchanged it for Cardinal Tetras. Piranhas are not for everyone. They are often bought by novice aquarists, just like I was, which usually develops into a sad future for the piranha. Today, with specialized piranha websites and social media, it is quite different, great general information about them is available, in reasonable quantities.

ABOVE: Detailed photograph of wild Black Spot Piranhas, Pygocentrus cariba, Carabobo, Venezuela.

ABOVE: Macro, close-up photograph of a wild Black Spot Piranha, Pygocentrus cariba, Carabobo, Venezuela.
 
 
ABOVE: Video of a wild Black Spot Piranha, Pygocentrus cariba, Carabobo, Venezuela.
 

So, back to when I was 8 admiring my defective piranha; I would stare at the aquarium and imagine how these fish lived in the wild. My young naive imagination would take me to remote jungles. I envisioned a small pond boiling with millions of these piranhas, as they skeletonized the poor donkey, I thought that was what castrate meant. I would have never imagined that the future would take me on more than a hundred expeditions to swim with and collect them all around Venezuela in remote jungles.

ABOVE and BELOW: Freshwater underwater photographs of wild Black Spot Piranhas, Pygocentrus cariba, schooling in their natural habitat, Apure, Venezuela.

 
 

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 require 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.

ABOVE: The serrated keel is a key trait of the Serrasalmidae family. Macro photograph of the serrated keel of a wild Pinche Iridescent Piranha, Serrasalmus irritans, Carabobo, Venezuela.

ABOVE: Freshwater underwater photograph of a wild Serrasalmus sp Amazonas, Black Spot Red Finned Piranha, in its natural habitat, Amazonas, Venezuela. This is probably the last undescribed piranha in Venezuela.

ABOVE: Detailed photograph of a wild Slender Piranha, Serrasalmus elongatus, in a specimen aquarium, Apure, Venezuela.

ABOVE and BELOW: Video of a wild Slender Piranha, Serrasalmus elongatus, Apure, Venezuela.

 

 

ABOVE: Detailed photograph of a wild Piranha Mafura, Pristobrycon striolatus, in a specimen aquarium, Apure, Venezuela.

 

ABOVE and BELOW: Video of a wild Piranha Mafura, Pristobrycon striolatus, in a specimen aquarium, Venezuela.

 

ABOVE: Detailed photograph of a wild Marbled Piranha, Pristobrycon maculipinnis, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.

ABOVE and BELOW: Video of Marbled Piranha, Pristobrycon maculipinnis, Venezuela.

 

 
ABOVE: Detailed photograph of a wild, juvenile, Red Throat Piranha, Serrasalmus medinai, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.
 

ABOVE: Video of wild, Red Throat Piranha, Serrasalmus medinai, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.
 
 
 
ABOVE: This is a freshwater underwater photograph of a wild Red Throat Piranha, Serrasalmus medinai, in its natural habitat, Apure, Venezuela.
 
ABOVE: Detailed photograph of a wild Dusky Piranha, Pristobrycon calmoni, voucher specimen, showing breeding season coloration, Monagas, Venezuela.
 
 
ABOVE: Video of wild Dusky Piranha, Pristobrycon calmoni, in the wild, Monagas, Venezuela.
 

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.

ABOVE: This is a detailed photograph of a wild Lobetoothed Piranha, Pygopristis denticulata, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.

ABOVE: Video of a wild Lobetoothed Piranha, Pygopristis denticulata, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.

 

ABOVE and BELOW: Detailed photograph and video of a wild Wimple Piranha, Catoprion mento, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.

 

ABOVE: Video of a wild Wimple Piranha, Catoprion mento, feeding in ints natural habitat, Apure, Venezuela.

ABOVE: Freshwater underwater photograph of a wild Wimple Piranha, Catoprion mento, in its green water natural habitat, Apure, Venezuela.

 

ABOVE: This is a detailed photograph of a juvenile, wild Iridescent Piranha, Serrasalmus irritans, Carabobo, Venezuela.

 

ABOVE and BELOW: Video of a wild Iridescent Piranha, Serrasalmus irritans, Carabobo, Venezuela.

 

 

ABOVE: This is a freshwater underwater photograph of a wild Pinche Iridescent Piranha, Serrasalmus irritans, in its natural habitat, Apure, Venezuela.
 

When I started my whole journey into the freshwater underwater world, I was always looking for new objectives and how to standardize my findings. One of the people that was always there and still is, offering me help is Prof. Antonio Machado-Allison. One of his first suggestions was to look for Serrasalmus nalseni, a very rare piranha. He told me that the original holotypes and paratypes in the Central University of Venezuela 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.

ABOVE: This is a detailed photograph of a wild Spotted Piranha, Serrasalmus nalseni, voucher specimen, Monagas, Venezuela.

 

ABOVE and BELOW: Video of wild Spotted Piranha, Serrasalmus nalseni, voucher specimens, Monagas, Venezuela.

 

 

ABOVE: Landscape photograph of a blackwater savanna stream (Morichal) featuring a colony of Moriche palm trees, Mauritia flexuosa, Monagas, Venezuela. This is the type location of Serrasalmus nalseni.
 

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 andS. manueli. Hopefully, someday, I will get a chance to meet them personally in their homes.

ABOVE: Detailed photograph of a wild Spotted Piranha, Pristobrycon careospinus, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.

 

ABOVE: Video of a wild Spotted Piranha, Pristobrycon careospinus, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.

ABOVE: Freshwater underwater photograph of a wild Spotted Piranha, Pristobrycon careospinus, in its natural habitat, Amazonas, Venezuela.
 

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 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.

ABOVE: This is a detailed photograph of a wild Neveri River Piranha, Serrasalmus neveriensis, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.

ABOVE: Video of a wild Neveri River Piranha, Serrasalmus neveriensis, in a specimen aquarium, Carabobo, Venezuela.

ABOVE: Video of a wild Neveri River Piranha, Serrasalmus neveriensis, captured in the Naricual River, Anzoategui, 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 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’ wellbeing.

ABOVE: Some piranhas can get to a very old age in the wild. This is a freshwater underwater photograph of an old wild Black Spot Piranha, Pygocentrus cariba, in its natural habitat, Apure, Venezuela.

ABOVE: Macro, close-up photograph of a wild Redeye Piranha, Serrasalmus rhombeus, Carabobo, Venezuela.
 
 
ABOVE: Video of a wild Redeye Piranha, Serrasalmus rhombeus, Carabobo, Venezuela.
 
ABOVE: Macro, close-up photograph of a wild Redeye Piranhas, Serrasalmus rhombeus, scales, fish skin, Carabobo, Venezuela.
 

One of the most incredible piranha things I have seen in the wild are how Olivaceous cormorant birds (Neotropic cormorant) pray 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

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