In Depth

Girl 'eaten by piranhas': How common are piranha attacks?

Piranhas involved in death of girl after canoe capsizes on Brazilian river in storm

A six-year-old girl found dead in Brazil was partly eaten by piranhas, the BBC reports. It is not clear whether the girl, who had been in a canoe with relatives, had already drowned when the fierce fish found her.

The story has just come to international attention but the girl, identified by local media as Adrila Muniz, died in the Maicuru River near the town of Monte Alegre on 27 January, says the BBC.

She was said by family members to have been with her grandmother and four other children when the canoe capsized during a storm. The grandmother was able to rescue the other children but could not reach the six-year-old.

What exactly are piranhas?

They're freshwater fish which inhabit rivers across South America and are known for their powerful jaws, sharp teeth and habit of feeding in large shoals. Their teeth can be used for weapons and tools by humans – and the fish themselves are often eaten, usually fried.

Where does their fearsome reputation come from?

In 2012, National Geographic explained that the fish's image as a ravenous killer which can 'skeletonise' a cow in minutes was first drawn in the popular imagination by former US president Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote about watching the fish perform exactly that feat on a visit to Brazil in 1913.

Are they really so very dangerous?

What isn't so well-known is that the fish Roosevelt watched had been carefully corralled in a large group by local fishermen and starved of food for several days. Normally, attacks on humans are rare, fatal attacks even more so. They usually happen when the rivers are low in the dry season – and children are at particular risk as their splashing can attract the fish.

How rare are piranha attacks?

The BBC points out that another six-year-old from the same state, Eduardo dos Santos de Sousa, died in 2012 after piranhas ate the flesh from one of his forearms. The Daily Telegraph says a five-year-old girl was killed in a piranha attack in 2012, also in Brazil. In 2011 a drunken 18-year-old fell into a piranha-infested river, possibly in a suicide attempt, in Bolivia. He died of blood loss said Brazilian website Terra.

So did piranhas kill Adrila Muniz?

It's not clear. The girl was taken to a morgue and gruesome post-mortem photographs show that most of the flesh from her legs had been eaten. But it is not known if that happened after she was dead. 

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