Without doubt, the potential threat of the candirú has been popularized greatly by Redmond O'Hanlon. In his book*, he describes the fish as an urinophilic creature that penetrates the urethra of male and female bathers. The fish then extends his spines; a painful condition that can only be solved with penile amputation. It's a truly interesting story; especially O'Hanlon's description of manufacturing a penis protector from a tea strainer.

Natives from the Amazon are quite familiar with the candirú: local fishermen even claim that it is dangerous to urinate into the river, because the fish can launch itself out of the water, and swim upstream into the urethra. The remarkable feats of such a tiny creature scream for a more detailed discussion.

The candirú is a parasitic catfish of the Vandellia family (urethra fish). The name candirú is Brazilian: the Spanish name is canero or caneros (from carnero: flesh- eater.) The fish is found in the Amazon, the Araguay and many other rivers stretching from Peru to Brazil. The three most common types known for their urethral parasitism are V. sanguinea, V. wieneri (gotta love that name), and Urinophilus erythrurus. The fish is translucent, eel-like, and approximately one inch in length. The fish has short spines on its gill covers that extend in an umbrella-like fashion. This prevents the fish from being pulled out.

The fish have very small eyes and live in murky water. It was always believed that the fish were urinophilic (attracted to the scent of urine.), since it would often swim into the urethra of bathing victims that were urinating in the river. However, the candirú feeds on blood and it is often found in the gill cavities of other fishes. Its instinct is to swim upstream into gill cavities, and attach itself. The fish is perhaps not urinophilic at all; it may simply mistake the stream of urine for the water flow out of a gill cavity. It should also be noted that the candirú not only attacks the urogenital apertures of men and women, but it has also been reported to attack the ear, nose and anus.

Other than the unconfirmed stories of local fishermen, there are no documented incidents of candirús swimming out of the river, through a falling stream of urine, into the urethra of a urinating victim. It seems highly unlikely that the candirú can:

  1. locate the exact position of the urine entering the murky, flowing river
  2. battle the enormous drag forces of the urine flow
  3. remain swimming inside the flow boundaries, and not fall out of the stream
  4. Do all the above so quickly, that a potential victim is unaware what is happening

However, the dangers the fish possess to swimmers are real, and the results are often extremely painful. The reports of past encounters confirm this:

The candirú introduced itself partway into the vagina, causing a hemorrhage when it was pulled out, and a subsequent severe inflammation. This operation requires some caution and skill because if, in order to withdraw it, the candirú is caught by its tail or its body it expands its dorsal and ventral spines into the tissues, which fix it there more firmly than ever.

Or in a case involving a male victim:

... he had operated for it two or three times... In one instance he tried to pull a fish out of a patient's penis, but the tail pulled off, and he had to operate, making a suprapubic opening into the bladder to remove the fish which had penetrated into that organ.

Several men could only be rescued from death by amputation of the penis. It should be clear that it is much better to avoid this creature than deal with the consequences. Natives of the Amazon often protect themselves from the candirú by constricting the opening of their penis, or with the use of a covering sheath. A tight fitting bathing suit can also prevent entry of the fish into the urethra.

Rather than having a painful surgery, there is another potential method of getting rid of a candirú: supposedly the juice of the xagua (jagua) fruit kills and dislodges the fish. This perhaps acidifies the urine, so that the spines of the candirú soften. It is suggested that a megadose of vitamin C will have the same effect, so bring along some pills if you're planning to swim in the Amazon!

Factual Sources:
*Redmond O'Hanlon - In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon, Vintage Books (1990), ISBN: 0679727140
http://www.wemjournal.org/wmsonline/?request=get-pdf&file=i0953-9859-002-04-0304.pdf (very interesting article!)
Apparently the dread Candiru has struck again, and this time there is documentary evidence1. If you have a look at http://www.internext.com.br/urologia/Casosclinicos.htm you'll see photographs taken during an endoscopic candiru extraction operation. The victim was urinating while standing in the amazon river, and the fish leapt clean out of the water2, and (erm ) in. While he did notice (surprisingly enough) that this was happening, it was apparently too slimy to get a grip on, and its barbs had stuck in, preventing it being pulled out. By the time of the operation, the fish had started to decay, lessening the stiffness of its barbs, and allowing it to be pulled out.

While I admit the possibility that the pictures may be a hoax, they are pretty convincing, and definitely show the fish having got stuck in there.

1 - If you can't bring yourself to look at the pictures, at least read the article at http://www.straightdope.com/columns/010907.html

2 - To clarify - He was standing in the river, but his penis was above the surface of the water and he was urinating into it. While the fish jumped out the water, it probably did not propel itself along the urine-stream like some crazed freudian death-salmon (Next on fox: When candiru attack!)

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