Thursday, July 5, 2007

Piranha myth defanged

“When flesh-eating piranhas are accidentally released into a summer resort's rivers, the guests become their next meal.” So reads the promo for the 1978 movie Piranhas. And piranhas were the murder weapon of choice for the villain Blofeld in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice.

The word piranha derives from the South American Guarani language, and means “devil fish” or “tooth fish.”

Alas, according to research recently conducted in Brazil by the University of St Andrews, red-bellied Amazonian piranhas gather in groups for protection rather than for hunting prey. And despite their sharp teeth and man-eating image, they live on a diet of fish, fruit and small invertebrates like shrimp, with some related species – and this will really spell the death knell for piranhas in Hollywood – completely vegetarian.

The repercussions are potentially serious. Will the Minnesota Twins, known affectionately as the Piranhas for their pesky play, lose their bite? Will people stop buying board games and toys like Piranha Pedro, Piranha Panic, and Road to El Dorado Adventure, which features a Piranha Math Challenge? What will fighter Dennis “Piranha” Davis do now that his nickname has been de-fanged? At least it will give the Piranha Propellers company a more friendly image. No more images of chopping up defenseless fish for these newly vegetarian boat props!

Piranhas are quite popular in countries like Peru, where they are eaten as a cure for infertility, lack of virility, and baldness. Some even say piranhas are the ultimate aphrodisiac. Love at first bite? Local Peruvian fisherman catch and sell piranhas for a about a dollar to the witch doctors who prescribe them. It’s a good living – they can make a week’s wages in a day.

A few days back fisherman Jerry Melton was looking for catfish when a one pound four ounce piranha showed up on his line while he was fishing in the Catawba River in North Carolina. It was the first piranha in the region – and it left an impression on his knife – and his psyche. Maybe there’s hope for the piranha in Hollywood after all.

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