Curious about the mysterious vampire fish? In this post, you'll learn 29 vampire fish facts, including diet, size, habitat, and more (you'll also see some pretty great photos). The vampire fish (also known as payara fish) live in the Amazon basin.
29 Vampire Fish Facts: Meet Amazon’s Payara
There are a lot of dark, creepy things that live below the water's surface. Some of them are ugly but harmless creatures that don't deserve their reputation. Some of them are vampire fish that absolutely deserve their reputation.
The payara is one of the craziest fish that you'll find in South America. Not only does it have a mysterious reputation due to a lack of research on the species, but it also has an unforgettable appearance that includes two gigantic fangs.
Its nicknames are “saber-toothed tiger fish” and “water wolf.” It literally eats piranhas for breakfast.
If you'd like to learn more about this scary, one-of-a-kind species, here are 29 payara facts that will keep you awake at night.
Payara (Vampire Fish) Overview
- Latin name: Hydrolycus scomberoides
- Range: Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela
- Population Status: Unknown
- Length: 2 – 3 feet (wild), 12 inches (captivity)
- Weight: 10 – 35 pounds (wild), 5 – 10 pounds (captivity)
- Diet: Other fish, including piranhas
- Physical features: Silver scales, spiked teeth and two long fangs that jut upwards from the lower jaw
- Where it lives in Ecuador: Amazon basin (eastern Ecuador)
1. What is a vampire fish?
The payara is a type of carnivorous fish that lives in the Amazon basin. It has long, curved fangs that jut out from its lower jaw.
2. What other names does the payara have?
Payaras are known by many names. Not surprisingly, most involve their teeth:
- Vampire fish
- Wolf fish
- Dracula fish
- Dogtooth characin
- Dogtooth tetra
- Saber-toothed tiger fish
“Characin” and “tetra” are both classifications in the fish world.
“Dogtooth” can be applied to many tetra that have prominent, outward-facing teeth.
“Vampire fish” and “wolf fish” are used to describe several other fearsome species as well.
3. Are vampire fish endangered?
The payara hasn't been evaluated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), so there's no official word on its extinction status.
4. Where does the vampire fish live?
The vampire fish makes its home in the Amazon basin of South America.
It likes clear, fast-moving water with lots of currents. You'll often find it in churning rivers and the bottoms of waterfalls.
5. What does the payara look like?
Let's talk about teeth. They were probably the first things that you noticed about the payara!
In addition to the sharp, spiky daggers that line their gums, payaras have two elongated fangs that rise from their lower jaws. These fangs can extend a whopping 4 – 6 inches, and they're so big that payaras are born with holes in their upper jaws that can house them.
As for the rest of their build, they're streamlined for power and speed. They have fan-shaped caudal fins that help them swim in choppy currents and rapids, and bony faces which hide large gills.
Color-wise, vampire fish are almost always a silver or silver-gray with darker hints around their fins and tails. These darker markings can be the only way to tell them apart from other members of their genus.
6. How big is a payara?
In the wild, payaras can get pretty large. They measure anywhere from 2 – 3 feet long, and their weight is around 10 – 35 pounds. The largest one on record came in at 40 lbs.
Captivity is another story. When raised in aquariums, payaras rarely exceed 12 inches and 5 – 10 pounds. They're slightly less aggressive than their wild cousins, but they also have shorter lifespans. It's a trade-off that you'll have to consider if you're thinking about owning a payara as a pet.
7. What was the size of the biggest payara in the world?
According to the International Game Fish Association, the record-holder for the biggest payara in the world was a specimen caught in Venezuela in 1996. It measured 3.5 feet and weighed 39.4 pounds.
8. What is the payaras Latin name?
The scientific name of the payara is hydrolycus scomberoides.
It's actually Greek rather than Latin! The first word comes from “hydro” (water) and “lykos” (wolf), and the second word is derived from “skombros” (tuna, mackerel) paired with the suffix “-oides” (similar to).
Here's the official family tree for payaras:
- Class: Actinopterygii (bony fish)
- Order: Characiformes (piranhas, tetras)
- Family: Cynodontidae (vampire tetras)
- Genus: Hydrolycus (a specific type of vampire tetra)
- Species: Hydrolycus scomberoides (the payara)
9. Are there any subspecies for the payara?
The payara doesn't have any subspecies, but it does share a genus with several other variations of vampire fish:
- Hydrolycus armatus
- Hydrolycus tatauaia
- Hydrolycus wallacei
Like the hydrolycus scomberoides, all of these fish have silver bodies and pointed canine teeth. They're often mistaken for one another, but there are subtle differences in fin and tail colors that can distinguish them.
10. Are payara aggressive?
Yes. In the wild, payaras are ferocious hunters that are constantly on the prowl for their next meal, and they don't let anything get in the way of dinnertime. They've been known to chase off medium- and large-sized fish that they don't want to eat just so the water will be clear for the fish that they do want to consume.
As for socialization, they might tolerate others of their kind in small groups, but they're mostly solitary creatures. It's assumed that they only come together for mating and migrating.
Captive payaras take these antisocial tendencies up to 11. They don't like to be housed with other fish at all, and they'll fight, threaten, charge and kill species that are put in the same aquarium. They hate being crowded. They're moody and temperamental fish on a good day, but when you force them to defend their territory, they get aggressive as well.
It's recommended that only experienced fish owners try their luck with payaras. They definitely aren't first-time fish.
11. Do vampire fish attack humans?
Good news! They might look like something out of a horror movie, but vampire fish won't actually try to eat you. There are no known cases of payaras going after humans.
They'll defend themselves if they're caught on a line by a fisherman, and plenty of people have reported cuts, nips and bites, but they aren't predatory towards humans as a rule.
12. How are payaras caught in the wild?
Lots of people want to catch a payara. Some are looking for dinner; others just want the bragging rights of snagging a vampire fish on their lure. Many sport fisherman travel to Ecuador in the hope of catching a payara.
To catch a payara, live bait is essential. It needs to be wiggling on the line to attract the attention of the hungry, meat-eating payaras.
Some fishermen will even jerk their rods to stimulate the frenzy of a piranha attack. Since payaras feed on piranhas, they'll see the bubbles and the motion and assume that a snack is nearby.
Even when you have a payara on the line, however, it isn't an easy thing to pull it on your boat. These heavy fish will put up a fight, and it's quite common for them to get away before they're successfully heaved out of the water.
13. How long do payara live?
Payaras have a relatively short lifespan. The really stubborn ones might hang on for two years or more, but most of them only last 6 – 12 months.
Death is often sudden and without any symptoms beforehand. It might have something to do with a build-up of nitrogenous waste in their bodies and their tanks; since they eat a lot, they also expel a lot of waste, and it doesn't take long for that kind of thing to reach toxic levels.
14. What eats a payara? Predators and Threats
There are no known predators of the payara. It's possible that they fall victim to aggressive freshwater species like caiman, but no one has actually observed this. Payaras are still mysterious animals with many secrets that we've yet to uncover.
15. What do payara eat?
Payaras are cannibals that eat other fish. They usually go for smaller specimens like minnows, tetras, trout and shrimp, but they aren't afraid of bigger prey. Examinations of their stomach contents have revealed that they can consume up to 50 percent of their own body weight.
A terrifying fact about payaras is that they often feed on piranhas. They can make an entire school of piranhas turn tail and swim away. These are such predatory fish that piranhas fear them!
16. How do payaras hunt?
Payaras like to dart into a school of fish and catch their victims in the ensuing panic. Their fangs basically function as spears that can be used for stabbing, grabbing and holding.
Some prey can be swallowed whole, but other creatures will be ripped apart with the payara's dagger-like teeth.
Others still might be held behind the fangs and transported to another location before they're consumed.
17. Are payaras good swimmers?
Payaras are strong and agile swimmers. They live in dangerous, fast-moving currents, so they get plenty of exercise as they navigate choppy waters. Their large caudal fins are used for propulsion, and their nimble pectoral fins help them change directions and make quick strikes when they hunt.
While not considered “jumpers,” payaras can pursue their prey to the surface of the water and break through it with a kind of aerial momentum. This can startle fish owners when they're not expecting it!
18. How often do payara lay eggs?
There's almost zero data on the reproductive cycles of vampire fish. We know that they don't suck the blood of other fish, but that's about it.
When do they breed? What age do they reach sexual maturity? How many eggs do they lay? Do they nest? Your guess is as good as anyone's!
Don't forget to bring a waterproof bag for your Amazon hikes. Here are our picks for the best waterproof dry bags.
You might be wondering how it's possible to know so little about the breeding habits of payaras when they're readily available as pets. The answer is that it's extremely difficult to breed payaras in captivity.
In fact, there have been no recorded cases of owners successfully breeding their payaras. For whatever reason, these fish just don't want to reproduce unless they're in their natural habitat.
19. Do payara carry disease?
Vampire fish aren't known as disease-carriers, but they can get bacterial and parasitic infestations. Since they eat live prey, they can be infected by whatever diseases that their victims had.
20. Do payaras hurt themselves in captivity?
Despite their tough-guy reputation, payaras can be surprisingly delicate. It's very common for them to hurt themselves while in captivity, and their injuries can lead to everything from infections to death.
Here are some of the most common causes of payara wounds:
- If their tank has been crowded with decorative rocks and seashells, they can slam into these obstacles when chasing after prey.
- If there's too much light in their environment, they can lose skin from the stress of it.
- If there are other fish species in their aquarium, they can attempt to fight them. Even if the others are too big to eat, they'll try to intimidate them with chasing and darting behaviors, and this will lead to conflict.
- If you frighten them with sudden movements, they can react instinctively and violently by throwing themselves against the side of their tank. Many payaras have killed themselves this way.
21. Where does the payara live?
Payaras live in the Amazon basin in South America.
They can be found as far north as Venezuela and as far south as the Rio Tapajos in Brazil. The river seems to be a natural border for their range; no payaras have been spotted past it.
22. What is the habitat of the payara?
Payaras like fast-moving water. They live in rivers and streams with strong currents, and they populate the bottoms of dams, waterfalls and rapids where there's always motion and activity. They don't usually swim lazily in placid waters.
23. Do payaras migrate?
Yes. During the rainy seasons of their native countries, payaras will migrate upstream. This might have something to do with breeding, or it might be related to the availability of their food sources. It's another mystery of the payara species!
24. Where can I see the payara?
Aside from in the wild, vampire fish can be found in many different zoos, aquariums and marine exhibits. While not exactly common, they aren't rare or endangered.
The biggest difficulty for zookeepers is keeping them “in stock” since they have short lifespans and a reluctance to breed in captivity.
25. Can I own the payara as a pet?
Payaras are often kept as pets. Before you pull out that old goldfish bowl, however, there are a few things that you should know:
- There might be restrictions about payara ownership where you live. For example, payaras are classified as an “invasive, prohibited and exotic species” in Texas, so it's illegal to bring them into the state. They don't want the payaras to be released into local waters. I expect that this applies to other states and provinces as well.
- Payaras are expensive. Since they're difficult to breed in captivity, most payaras are captured in the wild and shipped to exotic pet stores. You might need to pay a pretty penny to obtain your own.
- It isn't easy to care for payaras. In addition to being large, hungry fish that require a lot of food and space, they're also finicky about things like water temperature, and they can't be housed with other fish species in the same tank. You'll need time, patience, energy and plenty of high-end aquarium supplies to keep your payara alive.
In the Amazon Rainforest, you'll find another animal with a similar name. But different from the payara, the vampire bat actually drinks blood.
26. Can I eat vampire fish?
Some villages in South America will hunt payaras for food. They're large fish with a lot of meat on their bones, so it's worth the trouble of catching them. Reports say that they aren't very tasty, but they're filling.
However, it isn't recommended that you grill the payara that you purchased as a pet. It might have picked up all kinds of diseases and infections on its journey to your tank.
27. What other fish are known as vampire fish?
Payaras aren't the only vampire fish in the sea. There are more out there, including:
- Candiru – Known as “vampire fish” or “toothpick fish,” the candiru are small, translucent swimmers that act as parasites to other species.
- Dracula fish – These fish have “bone fangs” that protrude from their jaws. Their official classification is danionella dracula, so even more than the payara, they've earned their Dracula nickname.
- Lamprey eels – Lamprey eels are sometimes called “vampire fish” because of their tube-like suckers with dozens of tiny teeth.
- Vampire tetras – These are the other species of the cynodontidae family that we've already discussed. They're the silver, dog-toothed fish that are often confused with payaras.
28. What is the most dangerous freshwater fish in the world?
Contrary to popular belief, the piranha isn't the most dangerous fish out there. You wouldn't want to be dropped into an entire school of them, but as individuals, they're simply too small to cause any real damage. And vampire fish just don't present any real danger.
If you're thinking of a man-eating fish, it might be the bagarius yarrelli. Known as the “goonch catfish” or “giant devil catfish,” it measures six feet long and weighs 200 pounds, and there have been confirmed reports of these creatures attacking and eating humans. The most well-known incidents were the Kali River Goonch Attacks that killed multiple swimmers in India.
It's believed that the catfish developed a taste for human flesh because of Indian funeral customs of burying their loved ones at sea.
29. What is the fish that swims up your urethra?
Many gross-out stories have been told about fish that will swim up your urethra when you're peeing in the Amazon River. The most common culprit is the candiru, but others have been named as well.
These stories are almost certainly false.
First of all, the idea that a fish can jump out of the water and swim up a trail of urine goes against everything that we know about gravity, physics, fluid dynamics and basic common sense.
It's also a medical impossibility in terms of size: The opening of the human urethra is about six millimeters, and candiru have a diameter of anywhere between 10 – 15 millimeters.
Another big knock against the myth is that all of the stories are secondhand. There's only been one documented case of a candiru being removed from a man's urethra, and there's a lot of evidence to suggest that his claims were made up for attention.
According to one expert, it isn't totally out of the realm of possibility that a fish could swim into your urethra while you pee, but the odds are the same as “being struck by lightning while simultaneously being eaten by a shark.” So think about that the next time that you hear an exaggerated campfire story.
More reading: 47 Amazon Rainforest Animals
Payara: The Fish With Fangs
They eat piranhas. They have knives for teeth. They don't play well with others. Payara facts are both gleeful and gruesome, but that's what makes them so much fun. They're definitely one of the most unique creatures in South America!