What is a Candiru?

Dangerous Candirus are native to the Amazon River region of South America.

The candiru, also known as Vandellia cirrhosa or toothpick fish, is a small, scaleless, parasitic freshwater catfish native to the Amazon River region of South America. Candiru belongs to the Trichomycteridae family, which includes 207 species of parasitic catfish. For some, the term ‘candiru’ refers not just to one fish, but to all of the Vandellia genus. Many sources, however, use the term to refer only to Vandellia cirrhosa.

During urination, the urethra expands enough to allow a parasite to enter.

The eel-like fish can grow up to six inches (about 15.24 cm) long and has a translucent body with a small head. Not much is known about the breeding habits of this fish. It feeds on larger fish by drinking their blood, and after feeding, its belly may look bloated and distended.

Its eating habits have given the candiru an infamous reputation, even more infamous than that of the piranha. The fish literally hunts by tasting the water. It searches its prey for ammonia, a byproduct that is expelled from the gills of other fish. When the parasite locates a victim, it forces itself into the victim’s gill cavity. Once inside, it closes itself up by raising spikes on its own gills.

When people swim or loaf in the waters these fish inhabit, they must be very careful not to urinate while doing so. Human urine contains ammonia, the chemical used by candirus to locate prey. During urination, the urethra expands enough to allow urine to pass out and the parasite to enter.

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These fish are known to follow the path of urine to the urethra of unsuspecting people. For example, there is a well-known case of a man who had to surgically remove a six-inch fish from his penis after it had been lodged there for a few days. The fish must be surgically removed because the spines on the gills make it impossible to remove it by pulling it out.

Another fish known simply as candiru is the candiru asu, which is often confused with the blood-feeding parasite. This type feeds mainly on organs and meat. It has a small, circular mouth filled with sharp teeth, which it uses to poke a hole in the victim. Once the hole is made, the fish penetrates the body and consumes it from the inside. These fish don’t just eat corpses, but any body that is incapacitated in the water.

When bodies are retrieved from the Amazon River, coroners often discover bullet holes in them. Upon closer inspection, an inspector may discover that the body is indeed full of these parasites. Some corpses were found to contain hundreds of these fish.

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