Environmental Kology of Fishes Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 75-77,1987
0 Dr W. Junk Publishers, Dordrecht.
Scavenging on human corpses as a source for stories about man-eating
Ivan Sazimar & Sergio de Andrade Guimaraes2
’ Departamento de Zoologia, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, 13081 Campinas, Stio Paulo, Bras2
2 Hospital Geral de Pocont, 78740 Pocone’, Mato Grosso, Brasil
Keywords: Feeding habits, Necrophagy, Characiformes,
Pygocentrus nattereri, Serrasalmus spilopleura
Piranhas have a reputation for man-eating, notwithstanding the absence of authenticated records of persons
attacked and killed by these fishes. Three cases of piranhas scavenging on human corpses were recorded in
Mato Grosso, western Brazil. One corpse, found four days after drowning, was almost reduced to a skeleton.
Another corpse was recovered in a few hours, also after drowning, without the soft parts of the head. The
third corpse, recovered 20 h after the victim fell into the water due to a myocardial infarction, had flesh only
on the trunk:.
and, to a minor extent,
were probably the
necrophag0u.s piranhas. Some of the human deaths attributed to piranhas most probably are cases of
scavenging on drowned or otherwise already dead persons, by these opportunistic schooling carnivores.
Sharks and piranhas share the reputation of being
man-eating fishes (Coppleson 1950, Schultz 1964,
Myers 1972, Baldridge 1975). However, whereas
there are many well-documented shark attacks
which resulted in human deaths (e.g. Coppleson
1950, Gilbert 1963, Baldridge 1975), no comparable
evidence can be presented for the alleged attacks
by piranhas (e.g. Schultz 1964, Mark1 1972, Gould-
ing 1980). This latter situation may be due to the
remoteness of the places, and absence of eyewit-
nesses, where deaths caused by piranhas might
occur (Myers 1972). On the other hand, under
some circumstances a death may erroneously be
attributed to piranhas. Here we report on piranhas
scavenging on human corpses, in western Brazil,
and suggest that this feeding habit is one plausible
basis for the man-eating reputation of these fishes.
During the years 1985-1986 we were able to trace
three cases of piranhas scavenging on human cor-
pses. Two instances occurred in the Rio Sao
Lourenco basin (- 17” 02 ’ S, 56” 25 ’ W), and the
third near the town of Pocone, (- 16”19’S,
56” 40 ’ W), both sites in the Pantanal region, Mato
Grosso, western Brazil. The cases were reported to
the police station in Pocone, where a post-mortem
was carried out and the condition of the corpses
recorded. Besides this, eyewitnesses were inter-
viewed in the three cases. Photographs of one of
the corpses were withdrawn by the victim’s family
in order to avoid press sensationalism. For similar
reasons, photography was not allowed in the other
In one case, a woman - 25 years old drowned after
falling overboard from a boat in the main channel
of the river. According to eyewitnesses, her corpse
was found downstream four days later; it was
caught underwater by a branch near the riverbank,
and was noticed because of the commotion caused
in the water by the aggregation of feeding piranhas.
The corpse was almost entirely reduced to a skel-
eton, with some flesh left only on the left thigh.
In another case, a man - 50 years old drowned
while crossing a river on horseback. His corpse was
recovered a few hours later, without the right ear
and cheek, part of the tongue, and.most of the right
side of the neck. According to eyewitnesses, the
corpse was resting on the bottom on his left side,
which may explain flesh loss on the right side of the
head only. As the corpse remained underwater for
a relatively short time, and the victim wore the
tough, leather clothing used by the local herdsmen,
no other body parts were eaten away.
In the third case, a man - 70 years old fell into
the water after a cardiac death (myocardial infarc-
tion). His corpse was recovered about 20 h after the
death, with flesh left only on the trunk, including
the shoulders. His clothing was stripped off, with
the exception of some remains on the trunk. The
head, neck, both arms and legs, were reduced to
bare bone. The terminal and middle phalanges
were missing, with the exception of both toe
thumbs. According to eyewitnesses, the corpse was
found in calm water, about 50-70cm deep.
The three corpses described here showed charac-
teristic marks left by piranha bites, on the soft
tissue that remained. Some of the marks were
larger and wider than others, suggesting that at
least two piranha species, of different size, were
scavenging on the corpses. However, many bites
were unrecognizable, especially those on the first
The piranhas, neotropical freshwater fishes of the
order Characiformes, are widespread in all major
South American river basins (Myers 1972, Gould-
ing 1980). Their feeding habits vary with the species
and range from fruit and leaf-eaters to scale, fin,
and flesh-eating predators (Goulding 1980, Sazima
1986). Many species are omnivorous, and those
with predominantly carnivorous habits rely mainly
on fishes as prey (Braga 1975, Goulding 1980).
Species of the genus Pygocenfrus (cf. Machado
1984) bear the man-eating reputation, especially
(Myers 1972, Braga 1975), notwithstand-
ing the notable absence of reliable accounts and, to
the best of our knowledge, of any authenticated
record of a person being severely maimed, killed,
and devoured by piranhas.
The scavenging habits of both
the two com-
monest piranha species in the Pantanal region,
have already been observed by us. Both species
may feed on dead fishes, birds, and mammals,
sometimes already decayed, although their staple
diet consists of live fishes, eaten whole or by clip-
ping off pieces of fins, muscle, or scales (Sazima
1986, I. Sazima & F.A. Machado unpublished). In
the instance of the human corpses reported here,
the evidence suggests that
was the main
scavenger. This species collects in larger schools
attains a larger body size and
has stronger jaws and teeth capable of cutting
through the tough skin and firm flesh of large mam-
mal corpses. Once this is done, the smaller S.
can share the softer and smaller parts of
the corpse; other necrophagous fishes may do so as
well. Moreover, some of the recognizable bite
marks found on the corpses can be attributed with
some confidence to the wide-jawed, blunt-headed
In the cases described here, had the fleshless and
mutilated victims been found without knowing that
they died before their bodies were eaten away,
three more instances might have been added to the
numerous grisly stories about piranhas killing and
devouring people (e.g. Roosevelt 1914, Barros
1947, Myers 1972, Braga 1975). We do not deny the
possibility that a school of
may kill and devour a human being under special
circumstances, as already pointed out by some au-
thors (Schultz 1964, Mark1 1972, Goulding 1WO):
However, we suggest here that at least some of the
deaths attributed to piranhas most probably are
instances of scavenging on drowned or otherwise
already dead persons, by these schooling and op-
portunistically feeding carnivorous fishes.
We thank C. Nunes da Cunha and F.A. Machado
for their assistance, and T.M. Lewinsohn and G.
Shepherd for their comments on the manuscript.
Partly supported by CNPq grant 300992/79 to I.
Baldridge, H.D. 1975. Shark attacks. Berkley, New York, 263
Barros, F., Jr. 1947. Hunting and fishing throughout Brazil -
Mato Gross.0 e Goias. Cia. Melhoramentos, SPo Paulo. 408
pp. (In Portuguese).
Braga, R.A. 1975. Ecology and ethology of piranhas in north-
eastern Brazil (Pisces - Serrasalmus La&p&de, 1803). Banco
do Nordeste do Brazil, Fortaleza, Ceara, 268 pp. (In Por-
Coppleson, V.M. 1950. A review of shark attacks in Australian
waters since 1919. Med. J. Australia 2: 680-687.
Gilbert, P.W. (ed.) 1963. Sharks and survival. D.C. Heath,
Boston. 578 pp.
Goulding, M. 1980. The fishes and the forest. University of
California, Berkeley. 280 pp.
Machado, A. 1984. Studies on the systematics of the subfamily
Serrasalminae (Teleostei, Characidae), Part 3, On the status
and phylogenetic relationships of the genera Pygocenbus,
Acta Biol. Venezolana 12:
l-70. (In Spanish).
Markl, H. 1972. Aggression und Beuteverhalten bei Piranhas
(Serrasalminae, Characidae). Z. Tierpsychol. 30: 190-216.
Myers, G.S. (ed.) 1972. The piranha book. T.F.H. Publications,
Neptune City. 128 pp.
Roosevelt, T. 1914. Through the Brazilian wilderness. C. Scrib-
ners Sons, New York. 410 pp.
Sazima, I. 1986. Similarities in feeding behaviour between some
marine and freshwater fishes in two tropical communities. J.
Fish Biol. 29: 53-65.
Schultz, H. 1964. Piranhas: fact and fiction. T.F.H. Publica-
tions, Neptune City. 82 pp.
Received 3X.1986 Accepted 1.12.1986