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Serrasalmus sanchezi

Sanchez's Piranha


Characidae. Subfamily: Serrasalminae


Endemic to Peru where it’s been collected from several rivers including the Rio Ucayali, Rio Itayi and Rio Pacaya.


It inhabits rivers, pools and creeks, apparently showing a preference for shady areas with dense marginal or submerged vegetation.

Maximum Standard Length

Officially 4.5″/11.4cm but it’s known to grow to at least 6″/15cm.

Aquarium SizeTop ↑

A 48″ x 12″ x 12″/120cm x 30cm x 30cm/113 litre tank should be big enough to house one of these long-term.


Best kept in a planted set-up with plenty of shaded areas. A wild-looking tank decorated with tangles of roots and branches, clumps of plant species that grow to the water surface, patches of floating vegetation and a dark substrate is ideal. Many hobbyists keep their S. sanchezi in rather bare set-ups but in our experience they can act a bit nervously when maintained like this and fare much better in more natural surroundings. Don’t be surprised if the fish nips at the plants a bit as many some members of the genus are now known to be omnivorous animals.

Water quality must be of the highest order for this fish to thrive, and a moderate rate of flow seems to make it happier still. Use an external canister-style filter or sump, arranging the pipework so that water is returned lengthways along the tank. Place the spraybar so that it agitates the water surface a little. Additional powerheads are recommended by some sources but are not necessary if the tank is set up correctly. As usual when keeping large, predatory species weekly partial water changes of up to 50% are a must.

If possible the heaterstat should also be situated externally, as serrasalmids been known to attack both these and other items of equipment when they are located inside the tank. It’s possible to buy external filters with built-in heater elements, or inline units that can be fitted to the filter pipework. Failing these a sturdy heater-guard should be considered a minimum requirement.

Water Conditions

Temperature: 76 – 84°F/24 – 28°C

pH: 6.5 – 7.5

Hardness: 5 – 15°H


Wild fish feed mainly on the fins of other species as well as smaller fish. Some members of the genus have also been shown to eat nuts, fruits and seeds although this is unconfirmed in the case of S. sanchezi. In the aquarium most individuals can be weaned onto dead foods over time, although some seem to find it trickier to adjust than others and may refuse to feed initially. A period of starvation may be necessary, eventually giving the fish little choice but to accept what is offered. This is especially true of larger or recently-transported specimens.

Once acclimatised juveniles relish live or frozen bloodworm, Tubifex, Artemia, chopped prawns and similar foods. Adults should be fed correspondingly larger items, such as whole mussels, cockles, prawns, chopped squid, whitebait and earthworms. Once the fish reaches adult size it need only be fed two or three times a week.

This species should not be fed large amounts of mammalian/avian meat such as beef heart or chicken. Some of the lipids contained in these meats cannot be properly metabolised by the fish, and can cause excess deposits of fat and even organ degeneration. Similarly there is no benefit in the use of ‘feeder’ fish such as livebearers or small goldfish. Risks involved with these include the possible introduction of disease or parasites.

Behaviour and CompatibilityTop ↑

Should only be considered as a specimen fish for the enthusiast. This species doesn’t make a good tankmate for anything else. Scattered reports of it coexisting with other species or in conspecific groups should be considered tenuous at best given its carnivorous nature.

The issue of whether or not S. sanchezi can be kept in groups remains hotly-debated among enthusiasts. Some argue that the species should always be considered unpredictable in a closed environment such as an aquarium, the risk of injury outweighing any positive consequences of cohabiting these fish. Others meanwhile have successfully maintained quite large groups of the species, in some cases for considerable periods of time. We recommend keeping it singly, reserving such experiments for those aquarists with many years’ experience and the resources to provide the necessary tank space.

Sexual Dimorphism



This species has probably not been bred in aquaria.

NotesTop ↑

There are currently 24 described species of Serrasalmus, many of which look superficially similar. S. sanchezi has frequently been confused with S. spilopleura in the past, and is sometimes still sold as “Spilo cf” or “Ruby-red Spilo”. It actually appears to be more closely related to S. rhombeus or S. irritans than S. spilopleura. The characteristic red throat has also led to it being confused with S. medinai and even the red-bellied piranha Pygocentrus nattereri on occasion. Apparently the species is most easily identified by examining the serrae on the underside of the fish. These are arranged in an irregular fashion in S. sanchezi but follow a uniform pattern in other Serrasalmus. It’s unclear whether the fish being sold as “purple sanchezi” are a geographical variant of the species as it’s possible that all specimens develop deep purple scaling when adult.

Most experts agree that a detailed revision of Serrasalmus is necessary, as historically the genus has been viewed as something of a “catch-all” for similar-looking fin-biting/predatory characins. The juvenile forms of numerous species look broadly similar, characteristically developing the more distinctive adult patterning as they mature. This has resulted in new species being erected erroneously and there have been several attempts to reorganise the group. The most recent major revision was undertaken by Géry in the late 1970s, but a handful of new species have been described since then.

It’s worth noting that in South America only Pygocentrus species such as P. nattereri are known as piranha, with Serrasalmus and other related genera being referred to by other names such as Pirambeba. Serrasalmus species are therefore not considered to be “true” piranhas, the name being applied to them by the English-speaking world and aquatic hobby. The relationship between these genera is too complex to address here, although when observing mature fish clear morphological differences are apparent. In his 1991 revision of Pygocentrus Fink stated the following:

“Relative to other serrasalmin, Pygocentrus is diagnosable by several features, including prepelvic serrae number, morphology of the gas bladder and skull, and head width.”

It should also be said that serrasalmids are not the fearsome “monster fish” as often depicted by the media. Obvious care must be taken when performing tank maintenace but these fish will usually only bite when threatened, and they can be quite skittish in an aquarium setting unless their rather specialist needs are catered for. Most also live in excess of ten years and become less active as they mature, so think carefully before buying one.

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