Mata Mata Turtle
The Mata Mata turtle (Chelus fimbriata) also know as Mata-Mata, or Matamata is a freshwater turtle species found in northern regions of South America. They are primarily in the Amazon and Orinoco basins but also in other river systems such as the Essequibo and Oiapoque.
Their distribution includes many countries including northern and central Brazil, northern Bolivia, eastern Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guiana, eastern Peru, and Venezuela. This turtle species is also found in Trinidad and Tobago.
Reportedly the mata mata turtle has also been introduced into southeast Florida. However, it's still unclear if it has been able to create a breeding population in the drainage canals.
Like other introductions of invasive species such as the Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus) it most probably occurred due to the carelessness of the owners of captive specimens. For the time being no detrimental effects on Florida's habitat have been reported.
On their natural habitat, these freshwater turtles live on the bottom of shallow areas with slow moving water such as rivers, blackwater streams, marshes, stagnant pools, and swamps.
They are a strictly aquatic species, preferring to stand in these shallow waters where its snout is able to reach the surface to breathe. While adults almost can't swim, hatchlings and juvenile turtles can do so albeit quite awkwardly.
Adult mata mata turtles can weigh up to 33 pounds (15 kg). There are some differences between specimens from different geographic locations. Adult specimens also display sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females differ in appearance.
For instance, individuals found in the Orinoco more oval shells and pale necks while those from the Amazon have more rectangular shaped shells and dark markings on their head and neck.
Their oblong carapace or shell is brown or black in color, very rough, rather flat, and large in size measuring up to 18 inches (45 cm) in adult turtles. Their plastron is reduced, narrowed, hingeless, deeply notched at the rear, shortened in the front and with narrow bridges.
Both the plastron and bridges are yellow to cream or brown in color.Their head and neck, as well as the tail and limbs, are grayish brown on adult specimens. Compared to females the males have longer and concave plastrons and a thicker tail.
In each fore foot, these turtles have 5 webbed claws. The mata mata neck is longer than the vertebra found under its carapace and fringed with small skin flaps along the sides.They have a large, triangular and flattened head covered with barbels on the chin and upper jaw, and a "horn" on its long tubular shaped snout.
These flaps drift and sway with water movement, making the turtle resemble more a piece of bark covered with weeds or algae. This may serve as camouflage, hiding the turtle from possible predators or helping it catch prey. To further enhance their camouflage the carapace is very often covered by algae.
The flaps also contain nerves, that may be used to detect prey when the mata mata turtle is underwater among the plant debris and leafs.
Even though the Mata Mata turtle has very poor eyesight, they do have excellent hearing and tactile senses. In the wild, these strange looking turtles fall prey to large snakes such as the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) and probably large crocodilians like the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger).
Occasionally domestic cats and dogs also prey on these turtles. But humans are still their most dangerous predator, hunting them down for the exotic pet trade, where they can be quite expensive. In captivity their lifespan ranges from 40 to 75 years, in the wild is probably much less.
Their common name "mata mata" derives from Spanish and translates to "kill, kill". Throughout South America sometimes men will use the expression "mata matas" to refer to unattractive women.
Other English common names include "leaf head" owing to its leaf-shaped head and "needle nose" which refers to their unique tubular shaped snout.
Subspecies / Taxonomy / Etymology
The species was first described by French naturalist Pierre Barrère in 1741. While the first classification only came in 1783 by German naturalist Johann Gottlob Schneider who classified it as Testudo fimbriata. Since then the mata mata turtle was reclassified 14 different times until their current classification in 1992 as Chelus fimbriata.
Since the Mata mata Turtle exhibits a reasonable color variation among different populations there’s been suggested at times that subspecies should be recognized.
But still the mata mata turtle is the only extant species in the genus Chelus and also there are no subspecies currently recognized by science. They belong to the family Chelidae which includes the commonly called side-necked or snake-necked turtles.
Diet / Feeding
The mata mata turtle is a carnivorous species, they feed almost exclusively on live fish. But occasionally they will also eat amphibians, small mammals, and even birds.
However, they do have a quite unique method to catch prey, relying on their good camouflage just like ambush snakes such as the puff adder (Bitis arietans). They wait for prey to come close by and then by thrusting out its head while opening its large mouth it creates a low pressure vacuum that literally sucks the prey into the turtle's mouth.
Then it quickly shuts its mouth, allowing the water to leak out slowly, while the is swallowed whole.
The mating season takes place from October to December. Males will display for females by extending their head towards them while opening and closing the mouth, by extending their limbs and moving the lateral flaps present on the female's head.
Soon after mating, the female excavates a nest and deposits a clutch of 12 to 28 eggs. The mata mata turtle eggs are rather unique they are almost round and about 35 mm in diameter.
They also have a brittle shell, this is uncommon since most reptiles lay eggs with a soft and leathery shell. The incubation period lasts around 200 days during which the females don't guard the nest.
After the eggs hatch occurs, the young turtles receive no parental care and have to fend for themselves. In the underside edge of their carapace and plastron, hatchlings display a reddish or pink tinge that will gradually fade and eventually disappear as they grow.
Conservation status and major threats
The mata mata turtle isn't yet listed by the IUCN or CITES, so for now, the species is not considered endangered. They have a wide distribution in South America, and currently, it doesn't appear to exist any major threats to the species.
However, just like other Amazonian species, habitat destruction combined with collection from the wild for the pet trade can prove major threats to them in the future. Due to their quite bizarre appearance, the Mata Mata turtle is a very popular exhibit with many zoos displaying them.
Did You Know?
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Species: C. fimbriata