Adventure Aquarium gives guests a close-up look at fearsome fish with ‘Piranha Falls’

You may think of piranhas as ferocious, scaly man-eaters, but in reality, they’re actually kind of cute — no matter what Teddy Roosevelt says.

Guests at Adventure Aquarium will be able to learn that lesson firsthand Friday, when the Camden aquarium debuts “Piranha Falls,” a new, permanent exhibit that will feature more than 125 red-bellied piranhas on full display. The exhibit, with a 5,000-gallon pool and two waterfalls as tall as 18 feet, recreates a three-minute Amazon River rainstorm every 15 minutes throughout the day, complete with wind, mists, and thunder and lightning.

The goal is to explore piranhas' role in the Amazon River ecosystem. But you don’t have to worry about Adventure Aquarium’s fearsome fish — the staff feeds them. And well.

“These guys, you feed until satiation,” says Adventure Aquarium husbandry director Marc Kind. The staff, he says, has been feeding the piranhas three to six times a day -- beef heart and a variety of insects. Without a steady supply of food, their ferocious reputation threatens to make an appearance as the fish continue to grow to their full 12-inch length.

That bad reputation, says Kind, 50, of Turnersville, comes from the journals of former President Teddy Roosevelt, who paid a visit to the Brazilian Amazon in 1913 to witness piranhas’ behavior in the face of food scarcity. It was there that a group of locals gave Roosevelt a show, capturing a school of piranhas days before his visit in order to starve them. Then, for Roosevelt’s visit, the group let a live cow into their makeshift piranha cage, where the fish devoured the animal. As a result of the display, Roosevelt would later write that piranhas are “the embodiment of evil ferocity.” 

However, as "Piranha Falls" shows, the fish are naturally skittish and are able to get along just fine with other species. Also on display at "Piranha Falls" are stingrays, ripsaw catfish, and pleco, otherwise known as suckermouth catfish. Kind, who managed the establishment of "Piranha Falls," says that, as the piranhas become more acclimated to the exhibit, the aquarium will add other fish as well.

The exhibit takes over a former “Rivers of the World” display at the aquarium. Over two months, a crew of 50 renovated the space to be more piranha-friendly. Workers also added special effects -- lights, speakers, foliage, and fans, as well as a rain grid -- to recreate a thematic Amazon River rainstorm. The setup pumps about 70 gallons of water per minute through its two waterfalls, Kind says, and 20 gallons per minute via its rainfall system.

Incidentally, that’s probably the most rainfall the area will ever see. The Amazon River receives about 120 inches of rainfall per year. Philadelphia’s average is paltry by comparison, about 41.5 inches annually, according to Your Weather Service.

In addition to the piranhas and other fish at the exhibit, "Piranha Falls" features a side stage where the aquarium will display birds from South and Central America, including a blue-and-gold macaw parrot named Trinidad and a red-fronted macaw called Mango. Educational videos and signage are also included as part of "Piranha Falls."

Now introducing our April #AAQFeaturedCreature - the red-bellied piranha, along with Amazonian animals. Piranha literally means “tooth fish” in the language of the Tupí people of Brazil. #chompchomp #toothfish

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For Kind, who has been with the aquarium since 1991, the coolest part is, of course, the piranhas. Kind, a 1989 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a focus in marine biology, says he kept piranhas as pets throughout high school and college. And while he says he had fun feeding his fish for gawking football players at school, his time as a piranha hobbyist helped on the professional end, too.

“I was a young buck, so it was cool,” Kind says. “But I also learned how to raise piranha in a more intimate environment.”

That intimacy seems to have carried itself over to "Piranha Falls," while at the same time bringing Kind full circle back to his college days -- if in a much more grand way. The result is an immersive, thematic love letter to a much-maligned fish.

Too bad Teddy Roosevelt isn’t here to see it. 

Adventure Aquarium, 1 Riverside Dr., Camden. Exhibit free with admission, 844-474-3474,