Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Mata mata turtle

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Family: Chelidae
Genus: Chelus
Species: Chelus fimbriata
Conservation Status: Least Concern
Common Name(s): Mata mata, Mata mata turtle, Matamata and other similar variations

Mata mata, a strange name for what is sure one of the world's strangest turtles! This large, South American river turtle is the only surviving species of the genus Chelus and is easily one of the most unusual creatures you are likely to encounter in the Amazon Region.

Thanks to its leaf-shaped head, bark-like flat shell and ragged skin flaps, the species can perfectly blend in with the surrounding environment.

Distribution & Habitat
The mata mata is a freshwater turtle that occurs in South America, primarily in the Amazon and Orinoco basins. The species inhabits slow moving blackwater streams, stagnant pools, marshes, and swamps ranging into northern Bolivia, eastern Peru, Ecuador, eastern Colombia, Venezuela, the Guianas, and northern and central Brazil.

The species has been reportedly introduced into the drainage canals of southeast Florida. Whether it has created a self-sustaining breeding population is still unknown. This introduction may be due to carelessness associated with the exotic pet trade. Possible detrimental effects on Florida's native habitat have not yet been reported.

It is a strictly aquatic species that prefers staying in shallow water, where its snout can easily reach the surface to breathe.

Mata matas have a large, triangular and flattened head, covered by numerous tubercles and flaps of skin. The snout is long and tubular and resembles a horn. The snorkel-like snout allows the animal to lie fully submerged while breathing, with the least possible disturbance of the water surface. Three barbels occur on the chin and four additional filamentous barbels at the upper jaw, which is neither hooked nor notched. The neck is greatly elongated and thickened and longer than the vertebra under the carapace.

Close up, showing the horn-like snout of the mata mata turtle
Mata mata head close up. Notice the horn-like snout
Credit: "Chelus fimbriatus close". Licensed under
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The carapace is brown or black, oblong and may be up to 45 cm (~17.7 in) long. Maximum weight is about 15 kg (~33 lb). The plastron (the ventral surface of the shell) is reduced, narrowed, hingeless and shortened towards the front, and deeply notched at the rear with narrow bridges. This is possibly an evolutionary trait that helps individuals to resemble a piece of bark, offering camouflage from predators. The plastron and bridges have a creamish to yellow or brown coloration.

In adults, the head, neck, tail and limbs are grayish brown and fringed with small skin flaps along both sides. The forefeet have five webbed claws. Males have concave plastrons. They also have longer and thicker tails than females do.

Overall, the body of this strange animal gives an appearance (when in water) that resembles a piece of bark whereas its head resembles fallen leaves.

Mata mata turtle in an aquarium

Hatchlings have a pink to reddish tinge in the underside edge of the carapace and plastron, that gradually fades away with age.

The species has poor vision, however it appears to have excellent tactile and auditory senses. Furthermore, the complex folds of skin may contain sensory nerves that help in detecting motion.

Adults are bad swimmers, as the legs are adapted for walking on the bottom of the muddy areas they inhabit. Hatchlings and juveniles can swim awkwardly.

We know very little about the Mata mata's longevity in the wild. Most sources give a maximum life expectancy of at least 15 years though anecdotal evidence of captive individuals suggests a life expectancy of over 35 years!

They are sedentary animals, spending most of the day under water. They rarely bask.

Mata mata (Chelus fimbriata) turtle at Toronto Zoo
Mata mata turtle at Toronto Zoo
Credit: By Michael Gil from Toronto, ON, Canada
[CC-BY-2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

C. fimbriata turtles spend most of their time staying motionless in the water. As aforementioned, they are very good in camouflage and they simply wait for prey to come close by. Then, they simply thrust out their head and open the large mouth as wide as possible, creating a low-pressure vacuum that sucks prey into the mouth. The mouth is then shut and the water is slowly expelled. Prey is swallowed as a whole.

These strange animals are strictly carnivorous, consuming exclusively aquatic invertebrates and fish.

Breeding occurs once every year, from October through December. Prior to mating, the male repetitively extends the head toward the female, while opening and closing its mouth. Other male displays include extending their limbs, lunging their heads toward the females, and moving the lateral flaps on their heads.

After about 200 days, females lay 12 to 28 brittle, spherical, 3.5 cm (~ 1.3 in) in diameter eggs that are deposited in a clutch. After hatching occurs, the young turtles are left all alone. No parental care has been reported.

A matamata baby

In captivity
Due to their unique and bizarre appearance, they are a popular exhibit and many zoos have them for display. Just use a search engine to see if one features them nearby! A few I found quickly using google are the following:|
  • Toronto Zoo 
  • Detroit Zoo 
  • Denver Zoo 
  • Nashville Zoo

Demand and supply in the exotic pet trade is quite high for these strange turtles, and it seems they are a bit expensive to obtain. Despite their large size, they need less space than other large active aquatic species as the stay motionless for most part of the day. Like most aquatic turtles, water quality is the main key to keeping the species alive and well in captivity. Warm, acidic water is the ideal type, combined with a high tannin content that should be maintained all year round. Moderate to heavy filtration is recommended.

Credit: By Antonio Charneco (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Conservation Status
C. fimbriata is widely distributed in South America, and currently does not appear to have any major threats anywhere in its range. The species is listed under "Least Concern" by the IUCN.

Other Interesting Facts about the Mata mata turtle
- The species was first described by French naturalist Pierre Barrère (1690 - 1755) in 1741 as a "large land turtle with spiky and ridged scales" (translation). Initially, it was classified as Testudo fimbriata by German naturalist Johann Gottlob Schneider (1750 - 1822) in 1783. The species was actually renamed 14 different times until it was finally classified as Chelus fimbriata in 1992.
- It is the largest member of the pleurodiran family
- The carapace is commonly covered by algae, which further enhances the turtle's camouflage capacity.

References & Further Reading
- Bartlett, Dick (2007), "The Matamata", Reptiles Magazine 15 (12): 18–20
- Turtle Taxonomy Working Group [van Dijk, P.P., Iverson, J.B., Rhodin, A.G.J., Shaffer, H.B., and Bour, R.]. 2014. Turtles of the world, 7th edition: annotated checklist of taxonomy, synonymy, distribution with maps, and conservation status. In: Rhodin, A.G.J., Pritchard, P.C.H., van Dijk, P.P., Saumure, R.A., Buhlmann, K.A., Iverson, J.B., and Mittermeier, R.A. (Eds.). Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises: A Compilation Project of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. Chelonian Research Monographs 5(7):000.329–479
- Drajeske, P. W. 1982. Captive breeding of the mata mata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus). 6th Ann. Rep. Symp. Captive Propagation Husbandry July 28-31, 1982.
- Lombardini ED, Desoutter AV, Montali RJ, & Del Piero F (2013). Esophageal adenocarcinoma in a 53-year-old mata mata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus). Journal of zoo and wildlife medicine : official publication of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, 44 (3), 773-6 PMID: 24063112
- Wang L, Zhou X, Nie L, Xia X, Liu L, Jiang Y, Huang Z, & Jing W (2012). The complete mitochondrial genome sequences of Chelodina rugosa and Chelus fimbriata (Pleurodira: Chelidae): implications of a common absence of initiation sites (O(L)) in pleurodiran turtles. Molecular biology reports, 39 (3), 2097-107 PMID: 21655955
- Ernst and Barbour 1989, Espenshade 1990, USGS Biological Research Division 1999
- Matamata, Chelus fimbriatus, California Turtle & Tortoise Club
- Formanowicz, D. R., Jr., E .D. Brodie, Jr., and S. C. Wise. 1989. Foraging behavior of matamata turtles: the effects of prey density and the presence of a conspecific. Herpetologica 45(1):61-67.

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