The Piranha is a fascinating fish with a reputation that has been skewed by both Hollywood and the media. Thought to be aggressive and bloodthirsty it is a rather timid fish. People associate them with unprovoked attacks on humans. But how many attacks have there been and what were the circumstances. How many people have actually died because of these fish?
In short, despite their reputation it can be easily argued that there have been no direct fatalities caused by Piranha. There reports detailed are often exaggerated and bitten corpses are thought to have died by other means prior to Piranha finding the body. Attacks are mainly due to either extreme hunger, or more likely their breeding nests being disturbed by humans in the water. Everyone known to have been bitten by Piranha has walked to shore safely despite bleeding. Every year there are said to be over 200 reported Piranha attacks.
Human Attacks by Piranha
The Piranha is thought to be ferocious, carnivorous fish that will eat any animal that falls into the water. This myth, however, has been promoted by Hollywood films such as the famous ‘Piranha pool’ in the James Bond movie ‘You Only Live Twice’ as well as the story of President Teddy Roosevelt when he encountered the fish in the Brazilian wilderness.
This, however, is not true since Piranha are a scavenger fish that will feed on seeds, fruits, plants, and smaller fish. They will scavenge meat on already dead animals. The Piranha is a shy timid fish that will flee away from large animals that enter their territory.
Although it is mostly timid, the fish can attack large animals including humans when circumstances dictate. Most reports of Piranha attacks indicate that the fish bites the fingers or toes causing no serious injuries.
Attack mostly happens when the fish smells blood in the water, since this attracts them as they might think that the animal is dead or weak. They are opportunistic feeders. However during the dry season when there is food scarcity in the Amazon, they can bite unsuspecting swimmers who might have gone too far into their territory as the water levels recede.
A starved Piranha will lash out at anything for food. Even an animal it would normally flee from.
Documented Piranha Attacks.
The Piranha is indigenous to the Amazon region, but attacks are sporadic. Any incident will become wildly exaggerated by the media. Millions of people have lived in the Amazon for thousands of years, but the locals say that incidences of Piranha attacks are rare.
Brazilian swimming athletes even train in the Amazon. So what are the known incidents where Piranha have been involved, and exactly what was the situation? Were the attacks unprovoked?
Incident 1: Suriname Piranha Attack Study in 2005
There have been attacks in almost three sites in Suriname in the past decade in Suriname that have been well-documented. Two separate cases happened in Wayambo River with most of the victims being children who were swimming in the river.
The victims sustained injuries mostly on their feet which were not serious. In one of the villages in Suriname, almost 30 Piranha attacks occurred over 12 years with relatively harmless bites on the arms and the feet.
Piranha attacks on humans in this decade in Suriname have not been deadly as there has not been a single fatality. The attacks have been attributed to the dry season, where there is less food in the Amazon systems. Most people who fell victim to the Piranha had caused a commotion, spillage of foodstuff, or had put blood in the water.
See the study abstract here.
Incident 2: Piranha Attack 50 Swimmers in Brazil, in 2016
In early 2016, a spate of attacks at different beaches took place that are reported to have injured over 50 people within a month. The suspected culprit was the white Piranha.
Again, the dry season forces drought conditions and Piranha migrate to deeper waters where holiday makers are out in force.
Eight bathers were attacked at the beaches in Palmas, in Tocantins State, north-east Brazil. Children were included in the attack and a 4 year old had a bite to his heel.
25 people were reported to be attacked on San Francisco river in the town of Pao de Acucar, in Alagoas.
Populina in Sao Paulo, south-east Brazil, saw 20 holidaymakers injured by Piranha.
This was quite a spate of attacks and indicative of a dry season.
Read the story here.
Incident 3: Piranha Attack a 6 Year Old Girl in Brazil, in 2015
Ardila Muniz was in the company of her grandmother and several other children during a family picnic when typical Brazilian storms hit their canoe. The raging storms made their canoe capsize.
Unfortunately, the grandmother saved the other children and Ardila slipped away and was washed away by the powerful waves of the river. When Ardila was pulled out of the water at the scene she died immediately, she had obtained severe Piranha bites on her thigh.
The Post-mortem indicated that she could have drowned, or was weak before the Piranha took the opportunity to bite her. Fish experts say that Piranha attacks, though rare, can be fatal especially when they smell drops of blood as they can attack even large animals.
Another report of a five-year-old girl in the same year in Brazil was supposed to have occurred as a result of a Piranha attack, but the incident was not confirmed to be true.
Read the story here.
Incident 4: 10 People Savaged by Piranha in the Argentinian River in 2014
The incident that saw ten people attacked by Piranha fish follows a similar attack that occurred a few months after Piranha fish attacked 70 people as they were cooling themselves from the summer heat.
This incident took place in the Parana River in Rosario, which is 186 miles north-east of Buenos Aires.
During this attack of the victims, a young girl lost part of her finger to the fish. Other bathers and holiday makers suffered deep cuts to their hands, fingers, and ankles. Experts say that a combination of hot weather, as well as food scarcity, lead to such attacks. Fatalities, however, were little with no deaths recorded but minor injuries only.
Incident 5: 70 People Attacked by Piranha on Christmas Day in 2013
Literally a month prior to the above incident, 70 people were attacked at a similar stretch of the Parana River in Rosario, this time around 200 miles north-east of Buenos Aires.
Around 20 children were injured with ‘bits of flesh’ missing being reported. The report stated the attack was ‘very aggressive’.
Despite this many bathers went back into the water half an hour later due to the heat.
Read the story here.
Incident 6: 11-Year-Old Boy Fell Victim to a Piranha Attack in Peru in 2013
Reports indicate that the boy was on a family vacation in Peru when he fell into the water infested with Piranha fish. The body of the boy was later recovered from the water with Piranha bites.
It is alleged that he had drowned before Piranha feasted on his body. The body was discovered seriously bitten to the bone and had lost a remarkable amount of flesh to the Piranha fish. The incident happened during the summer when food was scarce in the Amazon region.
The cause of death is not clear, but drowning seems reasonable. It is unlikely that the Piranha attacked him he was alive. There are no similar recorded incidents of Piranha doing this to compare it to.
Read the story here.
Incident 7: Drunk Man Dies After Falling into Piranha-Infested Water in Bolivia in 2011
A drunk man died after jumping into the Piranha-infested Amazon river in Bolivia. He could not swim, and as he was severely drunk, witnesses say that he could have drowned before the Piranhas attacked him.
The 18 year old apparently jumped from his canoe near Rosario del Yata, which is over 600 km north of La Paz.
His body was later recovered, and he had sustained serious Piranha bites. Post-mortem results indicated that the man could have died long before he was bitten by the Piranha fish.
Read the story here.
Incident 8: Piranha Attack Reported in One of the Famous Brazilian Beaches in 2011
For the first time Piranha was seen at the famous Daveron Beach on the Paraguay river in the west of Brazil. 15 people were said to be in the water at the time of the incident.
Piranha caused a bit of fear to the resident swimmers when it bit the toe of one of the water goers, and the locals had to vacate the beach as blood in the water could attract more Piranha fish to the beach.
Experts said that the Piranha fish had been schooling in the area for almost two weeks and that they could have been looking for food during the summer when the food supply in the Amazon region had reduced.
Campos Pinto, a 22 year old victim said that he had taken a dip in the water when he felt a sharp pain in his foot. After inspecting his foot he found out that he had almost lost the top of his toe to a Piranha bite. Despite the attack, the beach remained open as it is part of the crucial Brazilian economy, but the authorities warned the locals to take caution when swimming in the river.
Read the story here.
Incident 9: 70 people attacked by piranha fish in 2007 in Suriname
During this dry season, when Suriname had one of its hottest summers in 2007 the Piranha were succumbing to food scarcity in the Amazon. The fish moved from their natural territory towards the coast where they caused havoc to unsuspecting swimmers.
In 2007, it was reported that almost 70 people sustained bites from the Piranha fish. Fortunately, nobody succumbed to these bites with not a single fatality.
The fish mostly bit the toes, hands and ankles of the swimmers who were rushed to the hospital for wound dressing. Some victims lost bits of their toes to these fish. Most of the victims only needed simple wound dressing without being admitted. Only a few, who lost chunks of flesh had to be admitted under doctor’s observation.
Incident 10: The Death of 300 people in the Brazilian Amazon’s River in 1981?
Jeremy Wade, the researcher for the program River Monsters, documented his investigation in one of the episodes. Wade had been keen on solving the mystery that led to the death of almost 300 people in the Brazilian Amazon basin.
The incident happened on the riverboat Sobral Santos 2, and is described as being one of the worst maritime incidents in the Amazon region. It was an overladen boat, catty more than 500 passengers and crashed into a dock, effectively capsizing it.
Although the incident took place more than 30 years ago, there are many suspected water monsters that are thought to have attacked the victims.
Top amongst the list is the Piranha fish that lives in the murky waters of the Amazon. Wade, however, says that the Piranha could not have acted alone in the initial attack that dragged so many sailors and passengers into the water never to be seen again.
Read the story here.
Incident 11: 39 People Killed in Submerging Bus in 1976
On the 14th November 1976 a bus travelling to the town of Itacoatiara from Manaus in central Brazil during the night crashed into a tributary in the Amazon.
39 passengers were killed. The bus plowed straight into the water, with suggestions that either the brakes failed or the driver had fallen asleep.
With the bus submerging, almost all were trapped on the bus and no-one quite knows quite how long the Piranhas took to arrive.
Watch a clip about the incident here.
What Are the Total Fatalities?
There have been no cases of attacks on living humans. Humans have died, but no-one can directly attribute the Piranha as the cause of death. There have always been other contributing factors or people have just suffered wounds.
The only attacks reported consist of bites on the toes, ankles, and hands of the victims. Most people who are found dead after a Piranha attack could have died from drowning in the rivers.
Nobody has ever been attacked alive when they swim in Piranha-infested waters. Piranha do not attack large animals, as they are a shy fish and think of large animals as predators.
The Piranha is a shy, timid fish that will swim away when they encounter an animal which is large, like a human in the water, as they instinctively think that you are a predator. Piranha are an omnivorous fish that feeds on seeds, fruits, nuts, worms, crustaceans, seaweeds, and smaller fish. They are scavengers and eat meat off large animals only when already dead.
Humans are not amongst the prey of this fish since they shy will move away from you. However, they can bite humans when they feel threatened. You should disturb their territory or nests during the mating season as they will bite. They are protecting their young ones.
During the dry season when the water in the Amazon basin recedes, humans in popular locations can swim past the Piranha territory, sustaining bites on their toes and hands. But it is rare.
When there is food scarcity in their area, the Piranha could relocate briefly in search of food. The smell of blood attracts more Piranha to a river beach, as does continuous splashing and commotion. This could lead to an attack, inflicting bites on the toes and fingers of the swimmers.
There have not been any reported incidents of Piranha attacking a person, and causing a fatality. Bodies have washed ashore having sustained Piranha bites but post-mortem results have indicated that most of these victims could well have died before being bitten by the Piranha fish.