River Monsters

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The Reality of River Monsters

I have a confession to make: For nine years I made a TV show, River Monsters , that left some people believing that everywhere you go, there are fish that can bite pieces out of you or pull you under. The fish are real enough—from dog-sized super-piranhas in the Congo to pound river stingrays in South America, and armor-plated alligator gar in the U.

So the chances of ever being in the wrong place at the wrong time are reassuringly small. Fish have been in our rivers for million years.


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This decline has happened in just a few human generations—the last years. So why am I telling you this now? Long before I worked in TV I was a biology teacher, and in science-speak most of the fish that I go after are apex predators—they sit at the top of the food pyramid. That makes them really good indicators of the health of the whole river.

It took him 25 years to catch one kind of fish

If the apex predator is there, you can normally assume that the rest of the pyramid is there too—the middle-sized fish that they eat, the small fish that they eat, and all the bugs and plankton that they eat. But if the apex predator is not there, it suggests that something is wrong. Take a minute for a quick thought experiment.

Imagine someone discovering that they have an abnormally low count of white blood cells the apex predators of the bloodstream. What do they do?

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Though piranhas aren't so dangerous to humans, two of the deadliest creatures in Africa often lurk unseen in that continent's cloudy rivers, their deadly jaws and fearsome teeth responsible for hundreds of deaths each year: Stories of water-borne supernatural entities and monsters exist in nearly every culture. For example, North American Indian legends tell of many spirits and entities living in rivers and lakes, and Tibetan Buddhists believe in nagas, snake-like creatures that live in rivers and streams. Sadly, hard evidence for true river monsters is as elusive as it is for lake monsters.

That doesn't stop some people from faking evidence, though. In , a photo supposedly depicting a huge serpentine monster in Borneo's river Baleh circulated around the Web. Said to have been taken from a helicopter by a member of a disaster team, a careful analysis of the photo revealed the Borneo river monster to be a fake.

Perhaps one day scientists will be able create a live Megapiranha a la "Jurassic Park"-style genetic engineering , but until then river monsters are more Hollywood fantasy than fact. Even the goliath tigerfish, billed as a deamon in a YouTube video , ultimately is netted with about as much fight and fanfare than a good inch trout.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and co-author of Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures ; this and his other books and projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.

Fish Guide

He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including " Scientific Paranormal Investigation:

This series provides examples of the following: