How Teddy Roosevelt gave piranhas a bad reputation

Science News

Former President Teddy Roosevelt called piranhas “the most ferocious fish in the world,” even more ferocious than sharks. But do these infamous fish deserve that description?

It turns out, piranhas aren’t that dangerous to humans or wading animals. In fact, people regularly swim in piranha-filled waters without any harm. Even the three fiercest species don’t usually nip unless someone steps in a nest or grabs them. Most bites heal, although carless fishers have lost fingers.

Many of the 30-plus piranha species are omnivores. Some species are even vegetarian. Black spot piranhas, like the ones here at Liberty Science Center, have a diet of live fish, birds, crustaceans, and carcasses. But they also eat plants, and other species prefer seeds!

So why are people afraid of piranhas? It all started with Roosevelt.

It seems Roosevelt’s tour guides in the Brazilian Amazon told him exaggerated stories about piranhas. Locals apparently put on a show for him by filling a netted-off section of the Amazon with unfed piranhas. When Roosevelt arrived, they fed the famished fish a live cow, which they devoured.

Roosevelt took the bait, and his writings caused many people to mistakenly think piranhas are dangerous.

It’s important that we understand these amazing creatures accurately. On your next visit to the Science Center, you can see the piranhas in our Eat and Be Eaten exhibition, along with 100+ fascinating animal species.

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