February 28, 2024

Imagine a bulldog flattened with a meat tenderiser, shaved and sprinkled with glitter. Imagine more, and everywhere, or else: when I was a child, as sure as all cartoon sand would turn into quicksand, in every fictional body of fresh water swam very real fish with very real, sharp, tiny little teeth.

In The Simpsons, Millhouse is more worried about piranhas than that his mother will stop loving him. Bart is reduced to a skeleton by piranhas from a hosepipe.

Then we all learned about the existence of those small fish that will eat dead skin off your feet and we forgot about the ones we were told would tear the flesh from our skeleton. It is easier to think about clean feet than bodies ripped to shreds by a frenzied school of small, rabid animals whose interlocking, triangular, “blade-like” teeth are specially designed for “rapid puncture and shearing”.

Piranhas lay their egg pits and swim round and round protecting them, ready to do the fish version of a pounce. To get past, distract them with an entire cow.

Theodore Roosevelt called piranhas ‘the most ferocious fish in the world’.
Theodore Roosevelt called piranhas ‘the most ferocious fish in the world’. Photograph: Lehtikuva OY/Rex Features

They really can devour a cow, if they’re starved and confined to a small space. But otherwise, they won’t. This, as the measure of the piranha’s disproportionate ferocity, is a rumour that comes from, of all unlikely places, a US president: Theodore Roosevelt. After failing to win his bid for a third term in 1912, Roosevelt decided to take a long and lovely literal trip along the “river of doubt” in the Amazon.

There, he was treated to a demonstration of piranhas eating a cow, “water boiling with frenzied piranhas and blood, and after about a minute or two, a skeleton floating to the suddenly calm surface”, according to this HowStuffWorks deep dive. In a memoir about the trip, during which he almost died, Roosevelt called them “the most ferocious fish in the world”.

They don’t chew: they bite, the meat goes straight into their stomach and they bite again. But at least one science writer wants you to know they’re not that bad. In an op-ed in the New York Times, a man who sounds suspiciously like Jacopo Peterman, Elaine’s boss in Seinfeld (“In the Peruvian Amazon, I stood waist-deep in the Rio Napo while catching and releasing piranhas on a hook-and-line”, and “In the flooded grasslands of Venezuela, I drove around tossing a chicken carcass into various bodies of water … ”), assures us we can “swim without fear”.

Who are you going to trust? Some fish expert or Sylvia Plath? “And the fish, the fish— / Christ! They are panes of ice / A vice of knives / A piranha.”

I trust Clark Moore, a poet who wrote a poem called Ampersands, which starts like this:

… and we remarked on how piranhas, in uncounted numbers,
are capable of consuming an entire ampersand in such-and-such
a time frame. The sun was up, and below, and was somewhere
overhead. And I thought … 

… and we shared thick and hearty laughs, and continued into the very
dense jungle. And thick. Preceding us on the trailsides were ruins
overgrown, boots stuck in mud, and heads of sunken ampersands.
Which made sense to us, for …

And ends like this:

… and you dipped your foot, from the riverbank into the river,
where the piranhas began eating. And I sat, looking at my hands.
Sat, for there was nothing I could say. On the riverbank, alone.
There, with whatever remained. & ….

And as it goes, reveals itself as something covered in glitter. It is boiling the water you’re swimming in and taking bites out of you, and is not quite finished, not quite understood, until you jump in again, and again, and it cleans the scraps off you.

  • Helen Sullivan is a Guardian journalist. Her first book, a memoir, will be published in 2024

  • Do you have an animal, insect or other subject you feel is worthy of appearing in this very serious column? Email helen.sullivan@theguardian.com

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