The piranha – which means “toothed fish” in the language of a native Amazon tribe – has an exaggerated reputation as an aggressive killer. Not so!
While they have been known to attack humans and some of these attacks have resulted in fatality, these incidents are rather uncommon and usually occur during the dry season when schools of them are desperate for food. The majority of piranha species are omnivores, feeding on nuts and berries at various points in their life and feeding on small animals when vegetative food sources are scarce.
About 20 species of piranha inhabit the Amazon River basin. The Long Island Aquarium’s Exhibit is home to the red-bellied piranhas (Pygocentrus nattereri) – the most widely distributed species in the Amazon and Orinoco regions. This species is the one most associated with the frightening myths.
When piranha shoals are hungry, they will attack animal prey with ferocity, even biting one another in the process.
Piranhas are not without their predators. Cormorants, crocodiles and other large fish and mammals feed on these fish.
While piranhas have the reputation of being aggressive man-eaters, this exhibit is actually cleaned from the inside by a Long Island Aquarium aquarist. The piranhas are more afraid of him than he is of them!