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Newly Discovered Bizarre Looking Mata Mata Turtle

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What they thought to be a single species of turtle in the Chelus genus has turned out to be at least two species, identified through rigorous genomic analysis.

The conservation status of this bizarre and unusual armored reptile has to be reevaluated. 

Senckenbery Natural History Collections in Dresden, scientist Dr. Uwe Fritz together with an international team, has announced a new species of mata mata turtle based on genetic analyses. Until recently, they assumed that there are only one species of this armored reptile that ranges widely across South America.

The study of the family Chelus published in the scientific journal ‘Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.’ The new information requires a reassessment of the protection status of these species, as they are sold on the illegal animal regularly.

Surprisingly little is known about these bizarre-looking turtles besides their unusual feeding habits.

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ID 87785172 © Sergey Taran |

The mata mata turtle is a charismatic reptile, quiet, with a large, triangular, flattened head with many tubercles and flaps of skin, tiny eyes, and a wide mouth. It has a “horn” on its long and tubular snout. 

They are about 53 centimeters long and looks like an algae-covered rock, in its camouflage blending in with the plant detritus, algae, and rocks of its freshwater homes. They can weigh up to 33 pounds. They are capable of biting, yet it’s rare.

These bizarre-looking creatures lurk at the bottom of the water, waiting for prey to swim close to them. When prey approaches, the turtle sucks it in by opening its mouth and swallowing it in whole.

Individual studies have shown that mata mata turtles look differently in the Orinoco River compared to the ones in the Amazon Basin. Based on this investigation, they took a closer look, so the researchers collected DNA samples across the entire distribution range and did mitochondrial examinations, and also conducted a survey of their morphological characteristics to compare with their DNA results.

The DNA results showed two distinct lineages that matched up with the morphological differences. 

ID 162737748 © Eatonphotography2019 |

Chelus Fimbriata, which is the old species, and has a dark underside and a more rectangular shell and lives in the Amazon and Mahury areas.

The new species, which is named C. orinocensis, the shell is unpigmented and oval, inhabits the Rio Negro and Orinoco basins.

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According to the team’s analysis, these two species began to diverge approximately 12.7 million years ago around the same time that the combined Amazon-Orinoco Basin split into two.

Earlier the mata mata turtle population was considered homogeneous, healthy, and widespread. Now they should rethink that.

You might see the mata mata turtle indicated as the “matamata,” “mata mata,” or “mata-mata.” All equally valid spellings.

No one is sure where they got their name, yet we have a few theories:

“Mata, mata” means “kill, kill” in Spanish, and since the turtles are native to South America, there might be a connection here.

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Another possibility is that mata mata turtles were misnamed after New Zealand’s Matamata. It isn’t uncommon for animals to get branded with the wrong place of origin when they are imported and exported on a global scale.

The mata mata turtle research was published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution

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