Black Piranha and Extinct Relative Had Strongest Bites of All

The debate about which of all the predators known to science was the most ferocious is a subject area often visited by nature documentary programme makers.  We seem to be obsessed with dangerous animals whether it is the extinct Tyrannosaurus rex of the Jurassic Park movies or indeed the Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias).  However, one when it comes to which animal had the strongest bite there is one small fish found throughout the Amazon basin that could give these two film icons a run for their money.  As a proportion of its body size, the extant Black Piranha is believed to have one of the strongest bites of any animal. So fish of the genus Serrasalmus can lay claim to the title of having the most powerful bite pound for pound of their body weight.

Piranha have been depicted in a number of movies, not as many as the dinosaurs, but just like those extinct reptiles, the piranhas reputation has been enhanced by its cinematic ability to strip flesh from people in a matter of seconds.  Black piranhas in the wild can be aggressive but they rarely attack humans.  They can grow up to about forty centimetres in length and they are an important predator of other fish species in the river channels and tributaries of the Amazon basin.

A Skeleton of the Extant Black Piranha with the Fossilised Teeth of M. paranensis (inset)

Fearsome predators with a strong bite.

Picture Credit: Grubich JR et al/Grey Taxidermy/Karen Carr

A team of researchers from George Washington University (Washington, District of Columbia, United States) visited the Amazon to study piranhas and other fish vertebrates, the bite force of the Black Piranha (Serrasalmus rhombeus) was calculated to be approximately 320 Newtons.  These fish feed by darting in and snatching bite-sized mouthfuls from other fish, attacking the bony fins and softer parts of the victim.  The data calculated by measuring the bite force was then used to assess the potential chomping power of a much larger, extinct species of piranha, fossils of which were found in Argentina.  The extinct piranha, known as Megapiranha paranensis is known from just one fragmentary fossil, part of the premaxilla (upper jaw).  M. paranensis was a freshwater predator that inhabited Argentinian river systems during the Late Miocene Epoch (approximately 8 million years ago).  Reaching lengths in excess of one metre, this ancestor of today’s Serralsalmus genus most likely had a scaled-up bite force.  The extinct super-predator shared its world with enormous crocodiles and turtles, bigger big with a very strong bite was an important adaptation for survival.

To read an article on the potential bite force of Tyrannosaurus rexNew Research into T. rex Bite Force

When body size is taken into account, the scientists working in conjunction colleagues from the Museum of La Plata (Argentina) and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, calculated that the bite forces generated by the Black Piranha and the extinct Megapiranha would have been bigger than those forces generated by Tyrannosaurus rex as well as the extinct Megalodon giant shark (Carcharodon megalodon).  Palaeontologists have used studies of extinct animal’s  jaws and teeth to try and calculate the bite forces that these creatures could generate.  It seems that a fish often kept by aquarium enthusiasts could have had the most devastating bite of all.

The bite force of M. paranensis was calculated by creating a bronze-alloy model of the jaw and using a computer programme to assess the power of the bite force generated when biting into vertebrate bone, turtle carapace or into the scales of catfish, organisms that this extinct fish could have attacked.  The strength of the fish bite was due to a combination of factors according to the scientists, the shape and size of the teeth, the amount of muscle associated with the jaws and the ability of the jawbones to conduct huge forces through them as a result of their anatomical configuration.  It seems even the jaws of the most formidable predator of the Late Cretaceous – Tyrannosaurus rex may not have been a match for these freshwater predators.

The Fossilised Premaxilla of Megapiranha paranensis

Strong bite from the Late Miocene.

Picture Credit: Mark Sabaj-Perez

The teeth of the extinct piranha are serrated and they remind team members at Everything Dinosaur of teeth from extant sharks such as the Tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier).

The research team went onto compare the bite forces generated against a series of other fishy predators, not only the colossal  Megalodon but also the Devonian giant Placoderm Dunkleosteus.  Pound for pound the piranha species came out on top.

A Bite Force Comparison between Extinct and Extant Species of Fish

Piranhas come out on top.

Despite the number of cameo roles piranhas have played in films, where they have been seen to strip their victim of flesh in a matter of seconds, the research team claim that this is the first time that the actual bite force of piranha has been studied in this way.

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