Piranhas, wild freshwater fish, often swarm in South American rivers, feared for their razor-sharp teeth and voracious appetite. Despite their notorious reputation, different types of piranha offer diversity that many people often overlook. Get another perspective on this creature by reading this post.
Piranhas are fish belonging to the Serrasalmidae family in the Characiformes order, which also holds tetras.
Recent analysis yields a revised list of true piranhas. Previously, only Pristobrycon, Serrasalmus, Pygocentrus, and Pygopristis were recognized due to their teeth.
If considered as a monophyletic group, the updated piranha genera narrows to Serrasalmus, Pygocentrus, and parts of Pristobrycon or expand to include Pygopristis, Catoprion, and Pristobrycon striolatus.
Scientists estimate the number of piranha species to be between 30 and 60. It's still up for debate, with new additions continually turning up.
Piranha-infested waters are found throughout South America, from the Orinoco River Basin to the Paraná River in Argentina. Some also live in the northern and eastern Guiana Shield rivers, Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, Brazil, and French Guiana.
Learn in detail some of the well-documented piranha fish in the following sections.
Related Read: Piranha Facts.
10 Types of Piranha Species
1. Red-Bellied Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)
The Red-Bellied Piranha, or simply Red Piranha, lives in the Amazon, Paraguay, Paraná, and Essequibo basins. It is also a common aquarium piranha, owing to its popularity among fish enthusiasts.
They have a fiery hue on their belly and a silvery-grey body. Moreover, they possess razor-sharp, triangular teeth that can easily tear through flesh. These types of piranhas hunt on fish, insects, and crustaceans.
Red-bellied piranhas are not a significant threat to humans and can survive up to ten years in the wild. However, overfishing and habitat destruction threaten their populations in some regions.
2. Redeye Piranha (Serrasalmus rhombeus)
The Redeye Piranha bears many names, conveying its different features. People also call them white piranha, black piranha, or yellow piranha.
Depending on their life stage or environments, their rhombus-shaped bodies come in varying colors, but their eyes always stay red.
These piranha are one of the largest, with an average length of 13 inches. Moreover, it is a solitary creature inhabiting freshwater expanses of South America.
Aside from small fish, crustaceans, and insects, they munch on plants and fruits and scavenge on carcasses.
3. San Francisco Piranha (Pygocentrus piraya)
The San Francisco Piranha lives in the São Francisco River in Brazil. Its other names are Piraya piranha, Rio São Francisco piranha, and black-tailed piranha.
It can reach almost 14 inches and has a yellow and golden body with darker colors on the back and lighter colors towards the belly. Unlike other piranha species, it has fibrous adipose fins.
It is an omnivore with a notable aggressive streak when hungry, stressed, or seeking live food. Its primary diet comprises smaller fish, insects, seeds, and aquatic plant matter.
Their diet is valuable in maintaining the population of other fish species. Despite alarming anecdotes, human encounters are not a significant part of their food chain.
In observing piranhas in a zoo environment, a study found no evidence of the commonly believed group feeding behavior. The species, typically rare in aquarium collections, exhibited more solitary tendencies.
They mostly stayed inactive, only showing activity during aggressive interactions or when feeding. A weakly linear dominance hierarchy was noted, with dominant piranhas engaging more in aggressive interactions and less in retreats1.
4. Gold Piranha (Pristobrycon aureus)
Gold Piranhas live in the Guyana River and the lower portions of the Amazon River in South America. When young, they have a golden color that fades to silver as they mature.
They eat insects, crustaceans, other fish, fruits, seeds, and aquatic plants; they help regulate plant growth in their habitat. Lastly, they are solitary.
5. White Piranha (Serrasalmus brandtii)
The White Piranha, also called Brandt’s pirambeba, inhabits the freshwater basins of Brazil, specifically the Rio São Francisco.
To spot them, look for their distinct golden-bronze body and reflective scales. Their dark base caudal fins contrast with red or yellow hues. What’s more, their head is concave above the eye.
Juveniles, however, flaunt dark spots and mostly hyaline fins, with less concave heads.
6. Silver Piranha (Serrasalmus manueli)
Native to the Amazon and Rio Orinoco basins in Brazil and Venezuela is the Silver Piranha or Manuel's Piranha, known locally as Caribito Parguasero. Unlike the social red-bellied variety, this is a solitary species.
Juvenile Manueli Piranhas boast unique features: elongated bodies, concave heads, large eyes, and green-tinted flanks with distinctive vertical bands, earning them the name Green Tiger Piranha.
As they mature, changes include a more stocky body, less prominent bands, and the formation of convex heads. All ages display striking red or orange gill plates and a dark humeral spot.
7. Black Spot Piranha (Pygocentrus cariba)
The Black Spot Piranha lives in the Orinoco River basin lowlands and tributaries in Brazil. It forms in schools and is an opportunistic generalist, feeding on fish, crustaceans, and plant matter.
It exhibits a silvery-grey upper body, contrasting with a lower body, displaying a spectrum of red to red-orange. Their signature black spot is located right behind the operculum.
Moreover, their pectoral and anal fins boast vibrant shades of orange to red, while the dorsal fin takes on a stark black color.
With their size peaking at 11 inches, these piranhas often show sexual dimorphism—females generally outsize their male counterparts.
8. Silver Dollar Piranha (Metynnis lippincottianus)
The Silver Dollar Piranha is a unique aquatic creature with a silver, disc-shaped body. They live in slow-moving freshwater bodies of the Amazon River Basin, where their round and flattened bodies help them navigate through dense underwater vegetation.
Unlike the notorious flesh-eating piranhas, Silver Dollar Piranhas primarily consume vegetation such as leaves, fruits, and seeds. Although they are mainly herbivorous, they get their protein by consuming insects and crustaceans in captivity.
Lastly, their temperament is peaceful, contrary to that of other relatives.
9. Wimple Piranha (Catoprion mento)
The Wimple Piranha is a unique species of piranha in the Amazon and Orinoco River basins. It has a dark stripe that runs from nose to tail and another from the dorsal to the anal fin, helping it blend with its surroundings.
Unlike the others, this piranha attacks fish for their scales and not their flesh. Their teeth and protruding chins make this easier2. Meanwhile, they can still chomp prawns and other meaty food in an aquarium setting.
Based on molecular analysis, they are still considered true piranhas, regardless of their double-rowed teeth instead of one row at the top.
10. Lobetoothed Piranha (Pygopristis denticulata)
The Lobetoothed Piranha, native to South America's Orinoco River basin and Amazon tributaries, is unique.
Sporting a body comparable to the Red Piranha, it's distinguished by larger fins and visible flank markings that fade with age. Its shades vary from blue-grey on the back to reddish underparts. Its fins mix yellow-orange with darker tips. It also has reddish gill covers.
Oldfield, R. G., Thal, J. E., Das, P., Zarlinga, N. J., Lukas, K. E., & Wark, J. D. (2022). Agonistic behavior and feeding competition in the largest piranha species, Pygocentrus piraya, in a zoo. Journal of Ethology, 41(1), 25–37.
Janovetz, J. (2005). Functional morphology of feeding in the scale-eating specialistCatoprion mento. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 208(24), 4757–4768.