Preying on our imaginations

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iol scitech jan 3 Piranha 3D

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The most recent was last year's Piranha 3D.

London - The seven-year-old girl was just one of thousands in the water of the mighty River Parana on the afternoon of Christmas Day last week.

For residents of the central Argentine city of Rosario, the festive season most certainly does not involve eating mince pies and drinking eggnog before sleeping it off in front of a fire. Instead, with the mercury hitting a sticky 100 degrees, most are keener to cool off than to gorge themselves.

The best place for a dip is the city’s Rambla Catalunya, a mile-long stretch of sandy beach on South America’s second largest river.

With bars, restaurants and fun fairs, the beach is a major attraction and last Wednesday was no exception. Tens of thousands had gathered to enjoy the holiday. Many took the opportunity to swim or paddle in the river.

That afternoon, as the little girl splashed up to her waist in the waters, everything seemed quite normal. Then, she suddenly felt a tugging at the little finger of her left hand. Instinctively, she pulled away, but the tugging grew more powerful. And then came a searing pain that caused her to cry out. She looked down at her finger, but all she could see was a trail of blood leaking into the dark water.

As she ran for the shore, her screams startled the sunbathers. The top part of the girl’s finger had been completely torn away. There could be no doubt what had happened. The girl had been attacked by one of man’s most feared creatures — the deadly piranha fish.

iol scitech jan 3 piranha

A man is treated after he was bit by a palometa, a type of piranha, while wading in the Parana River in Rosario, Argentina.

AP

Word quickly spread up and down the Rambla Catalunya. Lifeguards ordered people to stay out of the water but, tragically, the heat was so intense and the atmosphere so jubilant that people continued to swim. What happened next was like a scene from a horror film.

That afternoon, about 70 people — around 20 of them children — were savaged by shoals of the razor-toothed fish. Those who were attacked had chunks of their naked and exposed flesh ripped away.

They emerged from the waters with agonising wounds dripping blood onto the white sand. Deep cuts were reported on scores of fingers, ankles and toes. One injury resulted in an amputation.

Pictures taken in the local hospital show one man with the whole underside of one toe missing. The attack was the most serious in the city since 2008, when 40 swimmers were hurt and, while mercifully no one was killed, the story made headlines around the world.

There is something about this sinister fish that preys on our imaginations. Along with great white sharks, wolves, pythons and crocodiles, the piranha is the stuff of nightmares.

Ever since Boy’s Own adventure stories described game hunters and explorers being devoured after daring to swim in piranha-infested waters, we have been taught that the piranha is one of the deadliest predators on the planet.

Most of us can create a horrific mental image of falling into a river — and being stripped to the bone in two minutes by a boiling shoal of flesh-eating fish. Just such a fate was memorably portrayed in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, when the evil Blofeld dispatched Helga Brandt into a tank of piranhas for her failure to kill Bond.

Although not as great a horror movie staple as the great white shark — immortalised in the Jaws films — our fascination with the piranha has made for box office success. Since 1978, there have been at least six films starring the piranha.

The most recent was last year’s Piranha 3D. No wonder Londoners were alarmed when a piranha was discovered in the Thames in 2004.

Experts stressed that the fish had in all likelihood been thrown away by a collector of rare fish, and further reassured anxious Londoners that the water of the Thames is far too cold to sustain these creatures.

Yet despite their awesome power, scientists insist piranhas are not the malicious predators the films would have you believe.

They tend to attack humans only if trapped or hungry.

So who is to blame for our fear of this fish? It is none other than Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the US. In 1914, he published a travel book Through The Brazilian Wilderness, in which he described how piranhas could eat entire animals, such as cattle, alive.

“They are the most ferocious fish in the world,” Roosevelt wrote. “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.”

Roosevelt’s book was read by many, and the piranha entered into the public consciousness as one of mankind’s most vicious foes.

However, what Roosevelt was not told was that the piranha attack he had witnessed on a cow was staged. For the benefit of the former president, the Brazilians had trapped hundreds of piranhas in a netted-off stretch of the river and had then starved them for days. This created the ideal conditions.

When Roosevelt arrived, a sick old cow was led into the water, with its udder slit to release blood to further encourage an attack. Trapped, starving, and excited by blood, the piranhas did their job all too well.

Rumours of deadly South American fish had been known since the time of the Spanish Conquistadors, who reported they were often attacked when they forded rivers.

In the 19th century, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt insisted the piranha was one of the continent’s greatest dangers.

What sets them apart from other fish are their terrifying sharp teeth, tightly packed into highly muscular jaws. Relative to its size — they grow up to ten inches long — a piranha has a more powerful bite than that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Recently, scientists measured the bite force of the black piranha at 320 newtons, which is nearly three times greater than that exerted by an American alligator. That is more than enough to rip off a finger.

What is disturbing is that these attacks are becoming more frequent. In November 2011, 15 swimmers were bitten by piranhas in the River Paraguay in western Brazil.

One, 22-year-old Elson de Campos Pinto, recalled how he suddenly felt an agonising pain in his foot. “I saw that I had lost the tip of my toe,” he said. “I took off running out of the river, afraid that I would be further attacked because of the blood. I’m not going back in for a long time.”

One local fisherman talked of catching some of the fish in his nets and often seeing blood on the banks. Despite relying on the river for his livelihood, Hildegard Galeno Alves said: “I would never even think of going in there.”

In Bolivia the following month, a drunk 18-year-old fisherman jumped out of his canoe, and was seized by a shoal of piranhas. Although he managed to get out of the water, he bled to death.

Last year, a five-year-old Brazilian girl is said to have been attacked and killed in the water by a shoal of the fish.

After the feeding frenzy in Argentina last week, Carlos Vacarezza, a local expert, said that the Christmas Day attack was “exceptional and unlikely to be repeated”.

“What happened has no logical explanation,” he told a local radio station. “In this area, the water flows too fast to create the warm and stagnant conditions where the fish are comfortable.”

While some observers claimed the piranha were attracted by debris left by fishermen, the only explanation Mr Vacarezza could suggest was that one of the fish had been injured — and the shoal had descended to eat it.

Some of the human bathers simply got in the way. Certainly, cannibalism among piranhas is common, and larger, more aggressive fish will take a bite out of smaller rivals.

The Christmas Day attack alone would have been enough to terrify most of us. But there have been more since.

On Boxing Day, in the town of Posadas, 600 miles up the River Parana (the name, although it sounds like that of the fish, actually translates as ‘big as the sea’) to the north-east, five children and teenagers were attacked by piranhas. All had to be treated in hospital.

And then, on Friday, back at the Rambla Catalunya in Rosario, another attack took place. At four o’clock in the afternoon, a ten-year-old boy was bitten on his right hand, and he too had to be taken to hospital.

The experts may like to reassure us that piranha attacks on humans are rare, but are they right? Perhaps the truth about the dreaded piranha may be closer to the horror movies after all. - Daily Mail

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