roosevelt expedition amazon for Piranha

The Story of Theodore Roosevelt and the Piranha

Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States of America from 1901 -1909. As as well as being involved in politics he was also a naturalist and conversationalist. So how much evidence is there that Teddy Roosevelt started the Piranha mythology?

In short, the Piranha got its reputation for ferocity and danger from Teddy Roosevelt who was on a hunting expedition in South America (in 1913). In his book ‘Through the Brazilian Wilderness’ he recounts several dealings with Piranha. He calls them ‘ferocious creatures…a blood crazy fish’ and and in a particularly interesting passage describes them as “the embodiment of evil ferocity”. The claim that Piranha ‘sometimes devour cows alive if the unfortunate beasts wander into the water’ also comes from this book. Modern day experts can take issue with some of the claims made and it is even suggested that the locals, with a visiting former US president, rather staged the event by starving the Piranha firsthand.

If you’d like to read the Through the Brazilian Wilderness book, you can read it for free online, here.

roosevelt expedition amazon for Piranha

Teddy Roosevelt’s Life Prior to Visiting the Amazon Basin

President Teddy Roosevelt was one of the youngest presidents of his time. He brought changes into the American politics and made conservation a national issue. He also paved way for the Panama canal and was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Roosevelt believed in using the power of government for the good of the economy, and enacted legislation against the railroad with the he Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.

As much as he was a powerful leader, he was also a intrepid explorer and fought for addressing problems that arose in conservation.

Shortly after losing bid for the presidency a the third time, he decided to go on a cruise in the Amazon Basin. Roosevelt went on the tour with the Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon on river Doubt which was later named in honor of Roosevelt.

His journey in the Amazon was fraught with problems, such as diseases and bites from insects. This left the explorers constantly in a state of sickness with fevers and deadly wounds that made them weak.

roosevelt expedition amazon for Piranha

What Was his Trip to South America Doing?

Teddy Roosevelt was a man who loved exploration. Previously, he’d through the jungles of Africa as well as Europe. He has also travelled to the wilderness of North America.

He opposed the hunting of wild animals and promoted environmental friendly activities. In one of his wild adventures he came across a bear which he refused to shoot. This incident now gives rise to the nickname ‘Teddy Bear’ or ‘Teddy Roosevelt’ which is still common parlance today.

In his exploration of the South America he discovered river Doubt which was later named after him in honour of his exploration work. During his tour he was amazed by different animals and plants which are unique to the Amazon region. Among the rare sightings he was introduced to and reported about the Piranha fish.

In essence, the trip was just an exploration trip. He was hoping to find new animals, fish and geographical landmarks.

roosevelt expedition amazon for Piranha

Teddy Roosevelt and the Piranha Incident

Although not specifically recounted in the book, which is courted in more general terms, Teddy Roosevelt reported of seeing little fish, less than a foot in length, that could strip a whole cow to the bone within minutes.

What Roosevelt saw was a feeding frenzy which typically occurs when the fish are hungry especially during the dry seasons. A feeding frenzy is when a school attacks a large animal turning the water red as the animal is torn down to the skeleton.

Roosevelt reported that the Piranha fish was very ferocious and would harm any animal that fell into the water, especially if wounded. His report has been exaggerated by the media, as reports of Piranha attacks are widely shared, and the idea of the fish being deadly is further promoted by Hollywood.

In his book ‘Through the Brazilian Wilderness’ Roosevelt reported that the fish was a perfect killing machine with a huge appetite for blood. He described the fish as being ‘short muzzled with malignant eyes’ with ‘cruel jaws’ that can kill a person within minutes. He reported that the water was boiling with blood as soon as the cow was thrown into the water.

roosevelt expedition amazon for Piranha

What is the Specific Suggestion Made

A common myth that seems to come out of it is the suggestion that Roosevelt witnessed a Piranha frenzy that stripped a cow to the bone within minutes.

It seems the event may have been prepared for him as the former US president was taken down to a stretch of the river and warned not to go in. He was accompanied by journalists and guides at the time. The guides are said to have thrown the cow in the water.

The precise details seem to vary, we don’t know if the cow was dead, previously wounded or what size the cow was. It could have been a calf.

The myth that was born is that a cow can be devoured in minutes by the Piranha fish from watching this feeding frenzy.

Ray Owczarzak, the assistant curator of fishes at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, makes the claim that it could be reasoned that 300 to 500 Piranha fish around 5 minutes to strip the flesh of a 180 pound human being.

Thus for a cow to be devoured in minutes it would have to be very large number of fish, perhaps more than naturally school together or a very small cow.

roosevelt expedition amazon for Piranha

The 1914 Book ‘Through The Brazilian Wilderness’

Here’s how Teddy Roosevelt first describes Piranha in the book

Late on the evening of the second day of our trip, just before midnight, we reached Concepcion. On this day, when we stopped for wood or to get provisions—at picturesque places, where the women from rough mud and thatched cabins were washing clothes in the river, or where ragged horsemen stood gazing at us from the bank, or where dark, well-dressed ranchmen stood in front of red-roofed houses—we caught many fish. They belonged to one of the most formidable genera of fish in the world, the piranha or cannibal fish, the fish that eats men when it can get the chance. Farther north there are species of small piranha that go in schools. At this point on the Paraguay the piranha do not seem to go in regular schools, but they swarm in all the waters and attain a length of eighteen inches or over. 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. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked. Miller, before I reached Asuncion, had been badly bitten by one. Those that we caught sometimes bit through the hooks, or the double strands of copper wire that served as leaders, and got away. Those that we hauled on deck lived for many minutes. Most predatory fish are long and slim, like the alligator-gar and pickerel. But the piranha is a short, deep-bodied fish, with a blunt face and a heavily undershot or projecting lower jaw which gapes widely. The razor-edged teeth are wedge-shaped like a shark’s, and the jaw muscles possess great power. The rabid, furious snaps drive the teeth through flesh and bone. The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks. I never witnessed an exhibition of such impotent, savage fury as was shown by the piranhas as they flapped on deck. When fresh from the water and thrown on the boards they uttered an extraordinary squealing sound. As they flapped about they bit with vicious eagerness at whatever presented itself. One of them flapped into a cloth and seized it with a bulldog grip. Another grasped one of its fellows; another snapped at a piece of wood, and left the teeth-marks deep therein. They are the pests of the waters, and it is necessary to be exceedingly cautious about either swimming or wading where they are found. If cattle are driven into, or of their own accord enter, the water, they are commonly not molested; but if by chance some unusually big or ferocious specimen of these fearsome fishes does bite an animal—taking off part of an ear, or perhaps of a teat from the udder of a cow—the blood brings up every member of the ravenous throng which is anywhere near, and unless the attacked animal can immediately make its escape from the water it is devoured alive. Here on the Paraguay the natives hold them in much respect, whereas the caymans are not feared at all. The only redeeming feature about them is that they are themselves fairly good to eat, although with too many bones.

Or

But nobody could bathe, and even the slightest disturbance in the water, such as that made by scrubbing the hands vigorously with soap, immediately attracted the attention of the savage little creatures, who darted to the place, evidently hoping to find some animal in difficulties. Once, while Miller and some Indians were attempting to launch a boat, and were making a great commotion in the water, a piranha attacked a naked Indian who belonged to the party and mutilated him as he struggled and splashed, waist-deep in the stream.

Here’s another passage;

The mule came into camp alone. Following his track back they came to a ford, where in the water they found the skeleton of the dead man, his clothes uninjured but every particle of flesh stripped from his bones. Whether he had drowned, and the fishes had then eaten his body, or whether they had killed him it was impossible to say. They had not hurt the clothes, getting in under them, which made it seem likely that there had been no struggle. These man-eating fish are a veritable scourge in the waters they frequent. But it must not be understood by this that the piranhas—or, for the matter of that, the New-World caymans and crocodiles—ever become such dreaded foes of man as for instance the man-eating crocodiles of Africa. Accidents occur, and there are certain places where swimming and bathing are dangerous; but in most places the people swim freely, although they are usually careful to find spots they believe safe or else to keep together and make a splashing in the water.

And another;

Miller had made a special study of the piranhas, which swarmed at one of the camps he and Cherrie had made in the Chaco. So numerous were they that the members of the party had to be exceedingly careful in dipping up water. Miller did not find that they were cannibals toward their own kind; they were “cannibals” only in the sense of eating the flesh of men. When dead piranhas, and even when mortally injured piranhas, with the blood flowing, were thrown among the ravenous living, they were left unmolested. Moreover, it was Miller’s experience, the direct contrary of which we had been told, that splashing and a commotion in the water attracted the piranhas, whereas they rarely attacked anything that was motionless unless it was bloody. Dead birds and mammals, thrown whole and unskinned into the water were permitted to float off unmolested, whereas the skinned carcass of a good-sized monkey was at once seized, pulled under the water, and completely devoured by the blood-crazy fish. A man who had dropped something of value waded in after it to above the knees, but went very slowly and quietly, avoiding every possibility of disturbance, and not venturing to put his hands into the water. But nobody could bathe, and even the slightest disturbance in the water, such as that made by scrubbing the hands vigorously with soap, immediately attracted the attention of the savage little creatures, who darted to the place, evidently hoping to find some animal in difficulties. Once, while Miller and some Indians were attempting to launch a boat, and were making a great commotion in the water, a piranha attacked a naked Indian who belonged to the party and mutilated him as he struggled and splashed, waist-deep in the stream. Men not making a splashing and struggling are rarely attacked; but if one is attacked by any chance, the blood in the water maddens the piranhas, and they assail the man with frightful ferocity.

And just in case you were in any doubt;

“I never witnessed an exhibition of such impotent, savage fury as was shown by the piranhas as they flapped on deck. When fresh from the water and thrown on the boards they uttered an extraordinary squealing sound. As they flapped about they bit with vicious eagerness at whatever presented itself. One of them flapped into a cloth and seized it with a bulldog grip. Another grasped one of its fellows; another snapped at a piece of wood, and left the teeth-marks deep therein. They are the pests of the waters, and it is necessary to be exceedingly cautious about either swimming or wading where they are found.”

roosevelt expedition amazon for Piranha

What the Experts Say Now?

According to the report from Roosevelt, Piranha are most deadly and will attack anything that falls into the water. This however is not really true. People have been living in the Amazon for thousands of years, but the incidences of deadly Piranha attacks are rare, and non appear to be fatal.

In fact most of the cases when attacks have happened, the victim was was either weak, sick or injured. Reports by fish experts in the Amazon indicate that the Piranha do not attack animals larger than themselves if they are alive, preferring to feed on smaller fish, amphibians, insects and algae.

The Piranha diet is mostly is omnivorous, these feared creatures will feed on plant matter more than meat, in fact there are some species that only feed on plants exclusively. Some however like the Red-Bellied Piranha will feed on more meat and less plants.

The truth about the nature of Piranha is less exciting,  as the fish is reported to be shy and timid and will swim away from a larger animal as they associated large animals with being predators.

Experts say that the reports by Roosevelt were mainly from reports of the local people rather than what he had witnessed.

roosevelt expedition amazon for Piranha

A Twist To the Story

Unknown to Roosevelt, the incident was staged, to satisfy the American dream of game hunter thrills that results from adventure.

Or it appears it at least could have been.

A slightly different take on it has been put forward by Herbert R. Axelrod. Axelrod was the chairman of Exotic Fishes Committee of the American Fisheries Society.

What he suggested happened was this;

Roosevelt was a big public figure and a much distinguished guest wherever he travelled. He was the the first American politician to visit the Amazon jungle, and the locals were continuously looking to provide him with interesting and memorable stories.

His itinerary was always known to the host country as he trekked through the basin. He was supposedly led down to the river where the soon to be famous incident occurred. The travelling American press in full tow.

Unknown to Roosevelt and his entourage, an entire incident had been planned by ichthyologist Miranda-Ribeiro who had conceived a scheme. Weeks before, a section of the Amazon had been partitioned off by nets a few hundred meters apart.

Local fisherman, then caught local Piranha and placed them within this section, filling it with an unnatural amount of fish. Also, the food supply was scarce so the Piranha were slowly starved over the course of weeks prior to Roosevelts arrival.

Apparently there were several thousand starved Piranha in a few hundred meters of the Amazon basin. Trapped there until showtime.

Right on queue, Roosevelt was brought down to this part of the river and told about these man eating fish, and their deadly capability. They were repeatedly told not to go near the water. Roosevelt and his reporters were naturally skeptical. They asked that the claim be proven.

The Brazilians, acting like this was a spur of the moment request, then produced a cow. The cow was ‘in season’ so heavily discharging blood. A known attractant to Piranha.

This poor cow, was then ceremoniously guided into the water, bleeding heavily into a stretch of water with several thousand starved Piranha. You can only imagine the feeding frenzy that transpired.

It is said that the attack was almost immediate. So quick was the attack that the cow fell sideways as her leg muscle was eaten away. The reporters stared in utter disbelief, as thousands of 10 inch Piranha devoured the cow. Some Piranha are said to have leapt out the water and taken flesh off the back, as yet not underwater.

The cow was devoured within minutes apparently, the newspapers filled their pages with amazing stories and a myth was born.

You can read the alternative accounts here and here.

a single red bellied piranha

Have Piranha Attacked Humans and Killed Them?

The whole story gave rise to vilify the Piranha as the perfect killing machine. Remorseless and fearless, they are indiscriminate killers that frenzy the moment an animal is in the water.

However, there are no records of Piranha attacking and killing people in the Amazon Region. Most of the bodies washed offshore with Piranha bites are said to have been mutilated after they have drowned in the water.

The incident at Suriname was the only reported event where people were bitten.  They had gone further into the water and it is speculated that they were wading around Piranha nests. The Piranha were defending their territory. Contrary to the gruel character painted by Roosevelt, Piranha only bite humans when they are guarding their breeding space or if they are starved.

Other incidents, such as that of the girl who died in the Amazon in 2012 and was found with Piranha bites, later discovered to have happened after the girl had drowned.

Conclusion

So Teddy Roosevelt, along with a string of American press lay witness to the ferocious attack by Piranha. The book and the newspaper accounts would paint a dramatic picture of the Piranha that would last for decades.

Even today, the ‘fact’ still remains the first thing most people ‘know’ about Piranha.

In all likelihood, the ‘fact’ that the Piranha devoured a cow in minutes is probably accurate.

But the story, is both true and untrue at the same time. The incident did occur, the cow was eaten and probably in no great length of time. However, the event was likely staged giving a false impression of the natural state of affairs. Thousands of starved Piranha in a small location doesn’t occur that naturally.

Schools of Piranha are just not that big.

As a final ending to the tale, Teddy Roosevelt, after the incident was said to have asked for a fishing rod, and with a bit of raw meat caught one of the Piranha. Undoubtedly previously having been involved in the frenzy.

As it was a nature expedition in search of new fishes, he brought the fish back to America. They were scientifically named ‘Serrasalmus roosevelti’, no doubt to honor their ‘discoverer’.

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