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Red-bellied Piranhas

Swim with the piranhas? Sure, why not? Their reputation as man-eaters is false. In fact, just the opposite is true: Piranhas are a common food fish in the Amazon. If a piranha lands a bite, it’s usually when a local fisher is careless while removing the fish from a hook or a net. Then the defensive piranha might get a scoop of flesh with its powerful lower jaw and the shearing action of its sharp, interlocking teeth.

Red-bellied piranhas (Pygocentrus nattereri) are common throughout most of the Amazon basin, and you’ll find them schooling under the house in the flooded forest of Amazon Rising. To the local people, piranhas – about 20 species of them throughout the Amazon basin – are among the many resources brought to their doorstep by the annual floods.
Red-bellies live up to their name, with glowing red chin, belly and caudal fin, as if they were swimming over a neon sign. Their sides glitter with flecks of gold and silver amid otherwise gray-brown scales. Adults have red eyes.

Red-bellied piranhas are mainly carnivorous, although some other piranha species feed on fruits and nuts available during the high-water season. Adult red-bellies hunt, either by charge or by ambush, at dawn, in the late afternoon and late at night. They prey on other fishes, insects, crustaceans and worms, and also eat algae. Young red-bellies are active mainly during the day – a good way to avoid being eaten by an adult. The juveniles feed on larval and adult insects as well as on the fins and scales of other fishes, which are a good, renewable source of protein. In fact, some of the piranhas in Amazon Rising look a little chewed on. This tattered look, however, is only temporary. Their scales are quick to heal.


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