There were rumors about sharks swimming in city waters after Hurricane Harvey, and urban legends about alligators in New York City sewers have been around for years.
But listener Sarah Stephenson has a question about another predator that allegedly lives in Music City:
“I have heard that during the 2010 floods, the Aquarium restaurant at Opry Mills lost a piranha or a barracuda. Is there any way to confirm?”
The “escaped piranha” urban legend dates back to May 5th, 2010, just a few days after the historic flood left the Opry Mills mall submerged in 10 feet of water.
Dozens of tweets and Facebook posts from that day link to a story and video published by WKRN, which apparently first reported on the piranhas. The story has since been redacted, but a news blurb from CMT summarizes the original article: a WKRN reporter claimed that police reports indicated a pair of piranhas had somehow managed to escape from the enormous 150,0000-gallon tank at Aquarium Restaurant in Opry Mills.
WPLN reached out to Weakley to see if she could explain how the piranha story supposedly got into the police reports, but Weakley did not respond to requests for comment.
Aquarium Restaurant’s parent company, Landry’s Inc., similarly declined to comment on the now seven-year-old incident. But a Tennessean article published one day after the WKRN story quotes a Landry’s rep as saying “most” of the fish at the restaurant were contained, and that no piranhas had escaped.
The restaurant itself took to Facebook not long after the initial reports about the piranhas surfaced. In a series of statuses, Aquarium Restaurant assured customers that they had nothing to hide, but said they would not release any details about which fish were alive and accounted for because they had yet to “assess the entire situation.”
So the restaurant denies that any piranhas ever left the restaurant’s tanks. Still, could a successful escape have even happened in the first place? Could a pair of intrepid piranhas have managed to escape the restaurant, and, perhaps, make their way into the Cumberland River just across the street?
Frank Fiss, who is the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s chief of fisheries (and resident fish expert), says no piranha could survive in Tennessee’s waters for very long.
“It’s not plausible due to temperature reasons,” says Fiss. More specifically, piranhas are tropical fish that require high water temperature to stay alive. In the Cumberland, where temperatures dip into the mid-40s after summer, even the heartiest piranhas would die off.
Besides, says Fiss, if any piranhas were around and reproducing in Tennessee waters, he would know about it — the state regularly surveys lakes, rivers, and reservoirs for nonindigenous species.
“If there were schools of piranha [in Tennessee,] we would have caught them,” says Fiss.
What may be keeping the rumors alive, says Fiss, are the once or twice-a-year incidents where local anglers claim to catch piranhas. Word of the catch gets to the news, one thing leads to another, and soon stories about piranhas invading Tennessee proliferate.
But according to Fiss, in almost every instance, the fishermen aren’t catching piranhas. The fish at the ends of their line are more often than not another piranha-like fish called pacu, a popular tropical fish and non-carnivorous relative of the piranha.
“They’re the same color, the same shape as piranha,” says Fiss. “The only difference is if you look at their teeth, they have practically, almost human-looking teeth in them. They’re just big molars because they’re omnivores and they eat everything.”
Pet owners often release pacu into local waters because they grow quickly and enormously, sometimes up to two feet in length. And just like piranhas, they’re not built to survive in Tennessee’s temperate climate: the few that are caught by fisherman are essentially flukes.
So to the best of our knowledge, no piranhas ever escaped from the Aquarium Restaurant, and piranhas are certainly not thriving in the Cumberland. But the piranha legend is alive and well, more than seven years later.
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