Pygocentrus nattereri
Pygocentrus nattereri
(red piranha)
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Pygocentrus nattereri Kner, 1858

Common name: red piranha

Synonyms and Other Names: Pygocentrus altus Gill 1870, Serrasalmo ternetzi Steindachner 1908, Serrasalmus nattereri (Kner 1858); red-bellied piranha.

Taxonomy: available through www.itis.govITIS logo

Identification: Some United States specimens misidentified as members of this species may actually have been closely related species, the Orinoco piranha (Pygocentrus notatus). Pacus (Colossoma and Piaractus) also have been misidentified frequently as piranhas but may be distinguished by the shape of the teeth (sharp, incisor-like in piranhas vs. molariform in pacus). Fink (1993) reviewed the genus Pygocentrus and provided a key and photographs.

Size: 32 cm SL.

Native Range: Tropical America. Widely distributed in lowland areas of central and southern South America east of the Andes, including the Amazon and Parana basins and various coastal drainages of the Guianas and Brazil (Fink 1993).

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Interactive maps: Point Distribution Maps

Nonindigenous Occurrences: A single specimen (recorded as Serrasalmus nattereri) was collected from a golf course pond in Ventura County, California in 1988 (museum specimen). A single fish was taken from a borrow pit connected to Snapper Creek in Miami, Dade County, Florida, ca. 1974 (Courtenay et al. 1974). One specimen was taken from Lake Mabo in Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, on 4 April 1979 (as a result, the lake was treated with rotenone to kill all fishes present) (Courtenay and Hensley 1979: Courtenay, personal communication; museum specimen). There is also a record of one specimen taken from a canal west of Ft. Lauderdale in Broward County (no date given) (Courtenay and Hensley 1979). Piranhas were first reported in Hawaii in Wahiawa Reservoir, a 350-acre, privately owned irrigation reservoir on Oahu, in June 1992 (Devick 1992); a mature female was taken on 23 February 1993, but there was no indication that the species had become established (Radtke 1995; W.S. Devick, personal communication). Local aquarists in Lawrence, Kansas have been reported releasing specimens into local ponds (E. Wiley, personal communication). There are four records of individual fish taken in Massachusetts from various localities: one fish (124 mm SL) from Lexington Reservoir, Middlesex County, on 3 August 1981 (Hartel 1992; Cardoza et al. 1993); one fish (146 mm SL) from Island Grove Pond in Abington, Plymouth County, in August 1984 (Hartel 1992; Cardoza et al. 1993); one fish from a pond near Westminster, Worcester County, on 22 July 1985 (Cardoza et al. 1993); and one fish (tentative identification) from Horn Pond in Woburn, Middlesex County, during the summer of 1993 (Cardoza et al. 1993). One specimen was found dead in Michigan on shore of a lake near Ann Arbor, ca. 1977 (Courtenay and Hensley 1979; W.C. Latta, personal communication) and reported in Lakes Huron, St. Clair, and Erie (Cudmore-Vokey and Crossman 2000). Single specimens have been taken in Minnesota from Duban Lake in Rice County in July 1993 (museum specimen) and from Simley Pond in Dakota County in August 1998 (museum specimen). In Ohio, a single fish was taken from Rocky River near London, Madison County, in early August 1975; a second specimen was apparently observed at the same site during the same period as was the first (Stroud 1976; D. Moreno, personal communication). Three moribund fish were found in January 2000, in the Lincoln County drain near the town of North Platte, Nebraska (Schainost, personal communication). In Oklahoma, one fish (170 mm SL) was found dead in Theta pond on the campus of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Payne County, on 12 November 1993 (museum specimen). One, or possibly more reports came from an unspecified locality or localities in Pennsylvania (Courtenay et al. 1984, 1991; Courtenay and Stauffer 1990). A single piranha (119 mm TL, 119 g) taken in Texas from Boerne City Reservoir in Kendall County (Howells et al. 1991). A single fish (150 mm) was taken in Virginia from Indian Lake (borrow pit) in the Virginia Beach area, on 22 August 1987 (Stone 1987; Jenkins and Burkhead 1994, identified as Pygocentrus sp.; Southwick, personal communication).

Red Piranha have been reported in Lake Huron, Ontario (Cudmore-Vokey and Crossman 2000).

Ecology: Pygocentrus nattereri is a schooling predator that consumes live fishes whole or by removing portions of fin, scales, or muscle. It also feeds on crustaceans, insects, molluscs, and plant material (Sazima and Machado 1990). Additionally, this species is known to scavenge, feeding on dead and/or decaying fishes, birds, mammals, and occasionally human corpses (Sazima and Guimarães 1987; Sazima and Machado 1990).

Spawning season occurs between approximately October to February and is associated with changes in environmental cues including photoperiod and/or rainfall (Duponchelle et al. 2007; Queiroz et al. 2010). Spawning occurs in small nests dug within grasses or other marginal vegetation (Uetanabaro et al 1993; Queiroz et al. 2010)

Bennett et al. (1997) estimated a chronic thermal minimum of 10°C.

Means of Introduction: Probable aquarium releases.

Status: Failed in all states.

Impact of Introduction: Unknown.

Remarks: This species is the most common piranha in the aquarium trade. Although P. nattereri is considered one of the more aggressive piranha species, many experts consider its danger to humans to be greatly exaggerated and its reputation as a man-eater may be derived from scavenging on human corpses (Sazima and Guimarães 1987). Nevertheless, considerable care must be taken in handling live individuals. Import is prohibited in many southern states (e.g., Florida and Texas). Single or multiple P. nattereri have been found in ponds, lakes, rivers, and borrow pits. In northern states, reports are typically of fish taken by hook and line during the summer or found dead during the cooler months. The reaction by some state agencies has been to rotenone the entire waterbody in which the piranha was taken. This fish has small chance of surviving cold periods. A fish taken from the Elk River, Alabama, previously reported in a newspaper account as a red piranha (Middleton 1988), has been shown to be the pacu, Piaractus brachypomus (museum specimen). The piranha taken from Duban Lake, Minnesota, was originally misidentified by local biologists as being a pacu. Reports of piranhas taken from the Tamiami Canal in south Florida during the period 1969-1979 were unconfirmed (Courtenay and Hensley 1979), and none were taken there by Loftus and Kushlan (1987) and subsequent collectors.

Voucher specimens: California (LACM 44523.001), Florida (UF 97062), Hawaii (UMMZ 220369), Massachusetts (MCZ 57904, NUVC uncatalogued), Minnesota (UF 98887; JFBM 30193), Oklahoma (UF 96188), Texas (uncatalogued, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department), and Virginia (uncatalogued, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Beach).

References: (click for full references)

Bennett, W.A., R.J. Currie, P.F. Wagner, and T.L. Beitinger. 1997. Cold tolerance and potential overwintering of the red-bellied piranha Pygocentrus nattereri in the United States. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 126:841-849.

Cardoza, J.E., G.S. Jones, T.W. French, and D.B. Halliwell. 1993. Exotic and translocated vertebrates of Massachusetts, 2nd edition. Fauna of Massachusetts Series 6. Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Publication 17223-110-200-11/93-C.R, Westborough, MA.

Courtenay, W.R., Jr. - Florida Atlantic University (retired), Boca Raton, FL.

Courtenay, W.R., Jr., and D.A. Hensley. 1979. Survey of introduced non-native fishes. Phase I Report. Introduced exotic fishes in North America: status 1979. Report Submitted to National Fishery Research Laboratory, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gainesville, FL.

Courtenay, W.R., Jr., D.A. Hensley, J.N. Taylor, and J.A. McCann. 1984. Distribution of exotic fishes in the continental United States. Pages 41-77 in W.R. Courtenay, Jr., and J.R. Stauffer, Jr., eds. Distribution, biology and management of exotic fishes. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

Courtenay, W.R., Jr., D.P. Jennings, and J.D. Williams. 1991. Appendix 2: Exotic fishes. Pages 97-107 in Robins, C.R., R.M. Bailey, C.E. Bond, J.R. Brooker, E.A. Lachner, R.N. Lea, and W.B. Scott, eds. Common names and scientific names of fishes from the United States and Canada. 5th edition. American Fisheries Society. Bethesda, MD.

Courtenay, W.R., Jr., and J.R. Stauffer, Jr. 1990. The introduced fish problem and the aquarium fish industry. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society 21(3):145-159.

Courtenay, W.R., Jr., H.F. Sahlman, W.W. Miley, II, and D.J. Herrema. 1974. Exotic fishes in fresh and brackish waters of Florida. Biological Conservation 6(4):292-302.

Cudmore-Vokey, B. and E.J. Crossman. 2000. Checklists of the fish fauna of the Laurentian Great Lakes and their connecting channels. Can. MS Rpt. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 2500: v + 39p.

Devick, W.S. - Division of Aquatic Resources, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Devick, W.S. 1992. The great piranha hunt. Hawaii Fishing News 17(10)6-7.

Duponchelle, F., F. Lino, N. Hubert, J. Panfili, J.-F. Renno, E. Baras, J.P. Torrico, R. Dugue, and J. Nuñez. 2007. Environment-related life-history trait variations of the red-bellied piranha Pygocentrus nattereri in two river basins of the Bolivian Amazon. Journal of Fish Biology 71:1113-1134.

Fink, W.L. 1993. Revision of the piranha genus Pygocentrus (Teleostei, Characiformes). Copeia 1993(3):665-687.

Hartel, K. 1992. Non-native fishes known from Massachusetts freshwaters. Occasional Reports of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Fish Department 2:1-9.

Howells, R.G., R.L. Benefield, and J.M. Mambretti. 1991. Records of pacus (Colossoma spp.) and piranhas (Serrasalmus spp.) in Texas. Texas Parks and Wildlife, Management Data Series 70, Austin, TX.

Jenkins, R.E., and N.M. Burkhead. 1994. Freshwater fishes of Virginia. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD.

Latta, W.C. - Fisheries Scientist Emeritus, Michigan DNR. Response to NBS-G nonindigenous questionaire. 1992.

Loftus, W.F., and J.A. Kushlan. 1987. Freshwater fishes of southern Florida. Bulletin of the Florida State Museum of Biological Science 31(4):147-344.

Middleton, K. 1988. Man-eating fish found in river. Athens News Courier, 1 September 1988. 105(177):1-2.

Moreno, D. - Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Cleveland, OH.

Queiroz, H.L., M.B. Sobanski, and A.E. Magurran. 2010. Reproductive strategies of red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri Kner, 1858) in the white waters of the Mamirauá flooded forest, central Brazilian Amazon. Environmental Biology of Fishes 89:11-19.

Radtke, R.L. 1995. Forensic biological pursuits of exotic fish origins: piranha in Hawaii. Environmental Biology of Fishes 43:393-399.

Sazima, I. and S. de Andrade Guimarães. 1987. Scavenging on human corpses as a source for stories about man-eating piranhas. Environmental Biology of Fishes 20(1):75-77.

Sazima, I., and F.A. Machado. 1990. Underwater observations of piranhas in western Brazil. Environmental Biology of Fishes 28:17-31.

Schainost, S. - Rivers and Streams Program, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, NE.

Stone, S. 1987. 6-inch prianha found in pit at Indian Lakes. Virginia Pilot and Ledger Star, 23 August 1987.

Stroud, R.A. 1976. Ohio piranha. Sport Fishing Institute Bulletin 272:3.

Uetanabaro, M., T. Wang, and A.S. Abe. 1993. Breeding behaviour of the red-bellied piranha, Pygocentrus nattereri, in nature. Environmental Biology of Fishes 38:369-371.

Other Resources:
FishBase Fact Sheet

Author: Leo Nico, and Matt Neilson

Revision Date: 7/24/2013

Citation Information:
Leo Nico, and Matt Neilson, 2017, Pygocentrus nattereri Kner, 1858: U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL,, Revision Date: 7/24/2013, Access Date: 10/23/2017

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.

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Citation information: U.S. Geological Survey. [2017]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [10/23/2017].

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