“I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.” On August 27, 1912, these words in the new issue of All-Story Magazine heralded the first appearance of a new fictional hero: Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. “A crackerjack!” enthused the magazine. “It is the most exciting story we have seen in a blue moon… Zowie! but things happen!” A century later, Tarzan is still going strong. In honor of the ape-man’s 101st birthday this month, we’ve asked Jeopardy! know-it-all Ken Jennings to swing in on his vine and debunk four longstanding misconceptions about the jungles of the world. Ungawa!
Jungle Myth #1: Piranhas Will Strip Your Flesh from Your Bones!
Most people probably know exactly one thing about the small South American fish called piranhas: they are a swarm of razor-toothed juggernauts that will turn the unwary river traveler into a bleached cartoon skeleton within seconds! As a result of the media hype, piranha attack is now a horror and action movie staple. And after a century of panicky species misidentifications, the fish is now banned in over twenty-five U.S. states.
But reports of the piranha’s bloodthirsty appetite have been greatly exaggerated. Most adult piranha survive on fruit, and even the most feared species, Pygocentrus nattereri, the red-bellied piranha, is mostly a scavenger, preying on decaying river carrion, not fresh meat. In 1976, Herbert Axelrod, chairman of the Exotic Fishes Committee of the American Fisheries Society, wrote, “In twenty-five years of travel and fishing in almost every river system in South America, nearly all of which had schools of piranha, I never was bitten, nor did I ever meet anyone who was bitten … nor did I ever meet anyone who even knew anyone who was bitten by a piranha … and these are mostly Indians who live on the river and swim in it every day.” A 2003 study demonstrated that piranha travel in schools as a defense against predators, not because they are marauding for flesh.
So where did the piranha get its badass reputation? Blame Teddy Roosevelt! In 1913, the ex-president mounted an expedition into the Amazon rainforest, up the so-called “River of No Return.” Roosevelt’s Brazilian hosts hoped to impress him with the ferocity of the local fauna, so they staged a piranha attack. They starved a reservoir of the poor fish until they were devouring each other from hunger, then herded a sickly old cow with a bloody discharge into their midst. The resulting carnage was vividly described by Roosevelt in his book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, and a legend was born. Take note: piranhas do have sharp teeth and will try to chow down on living flesh as a defense mechanism or if they’re very hungry. But typically, swimming is piranha-infested waters is perfectly safe. The fish you really have to watch out for is the candiru, which has a reputation for swimming all the way up—well, just go Google it.
Quick Quiz: What now-megasuccessful movie director made his ignominious debut on the low-budget 1981 film Piranha II: The Spawning?
Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.