A strange species is lurking beneath muddy waters in one of South America’s meandering rivers. This bizarre-looking creature is known for its trademark grin and it remains hidden as fish swim past. Then, one strays too close, and the vast mouth of this fearsome creature swiftly consumes its prey.
This curious beast has been a source of entertainment and speculation ever since it was first encountered by Europeans in the 18th century. Its thick shell and broad, flat face twisted in a permanent smile makes it look like a creature from another world. But instead of an alien planet, this reptile inhabits the waterways of countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
This creature’s head and body resemble discarded leaves and bark to fish passing by. But beneath this innocuous exterior is an effective killing machine. This species can easily ambush prey as it lurks beneath the surface – sucking unsuspecting animals in like a vacuum before they can even think to escape.
This strange-looking lifeform is called the mata mata turtle, and up until recently scientists believed that it was relatively widespread. Now, however, new research has revealed that everything is not as it seems when it comes to this weird creature.
Today, the mata mata turtle crops up frequently in articles and internet forums. But the species made its first appearance in recorded history way back in 1741, when a French naturalist called Pierre Barrère described its scaled shell and impressive size. It was then officially classified four decades later.
Another naturalist called Johann Gottlob Schneider from Germany called the turtle Testudo fimbriata in 1783. However, the mata mata turtle has had more than a dozen names over the years. Eventually, it was named Chelus fimbriata in 1992 – a classification that would stick for almost 30 years. In fact, it wasn’t until 2020 that scientists would admit that something was amiss.
One of the most notable features of the mata mata turtle is, of course, its upper shell – or carapace. It is typically brown in color and covered in lumps, bumps and cones. But the turtle is often given further camouflage by the algae that clings to the creature. Underneath, the plastron is usually pink in juveniles, and it changes to brown or yellow as the species matures.
The next striking feature of the mata mata turtle is its long neck and wide, flat head. Furthermore, the numerous warts and ridges found here often inspire amusement in the casual observer. But underneath its weird exterior, this creature is actually a highly efficient predator which is well adapted for catching prey.
Admittedly, the small eyes of the mata mata turtle mean that it is difficult for the creature to spot prey in the murky waters of its typical habitat. But it more than makes up for that with its other senses. For example, the flaps of skin attached to the reptile’s neck and head allow it to detect nearby vibrations.
Furthermore, the mata mata turtle boasts concentrations of nerves on its mouth, chin and neck which help detect prey. The turtle’s huge ears also make it unusually sensitive to noise. So, the mata mata might not be able to see its next meal, but the creature can likely hear it coming.
The mata mata turtle’s webbed digits mean that it is technically an aquatic species. But these reptiles have not adapted particularly well to swimming in open water. Instead, they can mostly be found lurking at the bottom of slow-moving rivers, streams and marshes, where they blend in with plant matter.
Mata mata turtles can also grow to an extraordinary size. According to Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, its shells can reach up to 1.5 feet across, and some of them have been known to weigh almost 40 pounds. For context, that’s approximately the same weight as an average four-year-old child.
The mata mata turtle also exhibits some strange reproductive behavior that would surely entertain any passing observer. The zoo notes that the male begins courtship by opening and closing his wide jaws in the direction of the female. And if this isn’t enough to persuade her, he can also wave the flaps of skin on his head and stretch his back legs out in an attempt to woo the potential mate.
The reproductive process can result in a clutch of up to 28 eggs, which the female mata mata turtle deposits in a nest on land. And the babies subsequently emerge after an unusually lengthy incubation of around 200 days, Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute notes. Unlike some other turtles, this species has not historically been considered rare – although recent revelations could see that change.
Typically, the mata mata turtle is found in the basins of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in South America. As such, this means that its habitat extends across parts of Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil. Further north, it can be seen in captivity in a number of places across the United States – such as at the aforementioned Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
The mata mata turtle is apparently fed on a diet of fish in captivity. But in the wild it is a carnivorous predator that also devours the small invertebrates which share its habitat. The creature uses a snout which is shaped like a snorkel to breathe and it lurks beneath the water – lying in wait to surprise its prey.
The mata mata’s strange habits and alien-like appearance have helped it gain a reputation as one of the oddest turtles on planet Earth. Naturally, some other forms of the species such as the spiny softshell and the alligator-snapping turtle might look just as bizarre. However, few can match the mata mata in the weirdness stakes.
The mata mata turtle was actually something of a mystery to researchers around the world up until recently. To explain more, reptile and amphibian expert Dr. Uwe Fritz from Germany’s Senckenberg Natural History Collections outlined how the creatures represented a grey area in his field of study.
“Although these turtles are widely known due to their bizarre looks and their unusual feeding behavior, surprisingly little is known about their variability and genetics,” Fritz said in April 2020. “Until now, we assumed that there is only one species of this armored reptile that ranges widely across South America.” However, recently some researchers have begun to suspect that this might not be the case.
Up until recently, most experts regarded the mata mata turtle population as relatively healthy and widespread. Though some observers had noted physical variations between different specimens belonging to the same species. But was this just simple diversity – or something altogether more fascinating?
In biology, some creatures such as the giant squid exhibit a wide array of physical diversity within a single species. However, these differences seemingly related to geographic location when it came to the mata mata turtle. Experts consequently began to wonder whether or not something genetic might be behind the variations.
“Several studies have pointed out individual mata mata turtles look differently in the Orinoco River compared to the Amazon basin,” Fritz explained. “Based on this observation, we decided to take a closer look at these animals’ genetic makeup.” As a result, the scientist launched a study of the bizarre beast with a team from the Senckenberg Natural History Collections.
The researchers used 75 samples of mata mata turtle DNA – looking for genetic differences between the different specimens. And what they found led them to a startling conclusion. Scientists had previously believed that there was only one species of this strange reptile, but the truth turned out to be very different.
The researchers discovered that the mata mata turtles living in South America actually belong to two different species. And as well as Chelus fimbriata – which is limited to the Amazon basin – there is also Chelus orinocensis. And this latter creature inhabits the more northerly Orinoco watershed.
Interestingly, their location wasn’t the only difference between these two distinct species. The original Chelus fimbriata species apparently has a shell that is rectangular in shape and it has dark coloring on its underside. Meanwhile, experts have noted that the Chelus orinocensis has an unpigmented plastron and an oval carapace.
According to experts from the Senckenberg Natural History Collections, the mata mata turtles that inhabit South America today can be traced back to the late Miocene period some 13 million years in the past. Up until that point, the Amazon and Orinoco regions were part of the same vast river basin. But it wasn’t just the land that diverged when the waters split off from each other.
The ancestors of the mata mata turtle split off into two distinct species as the Amazon and the Orinoco formed into two separate basins. Furthermore, this diversity went undetected for centuries by the biologists who studied these strange reptiles. But now, experts finally understand these creatures, and they recognize just how vulnerable they might be.
“To date, this species was not considered endangered, based on its widespread distribution,” Senckenberg study leader Mario Vargas-Ramírez explained in the statement. “However, our results show that, due to the split into two species, the population size of each species is smaller than previously assumed.”
Unfortunately, their newly discovered rarity isn’t the only thing that could pose a threat to the future of the mata mata turtles. According to Vargas-Ramirez, “Every year, thousands of these bizarre-looking animals end up in the illegal animal trade and are confiscated by the authorities. We must protect these fascinating animals before it is too late.”
In July 2020 the research conducted by Vargas-Ramirez, Fritz and their colleagues was published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. In the paper, the authors note that further research is needed to gauge the impact of the illegal animal trade on the mata mata turtle population. And they hope to plot strategies for its conservation using this information.
“It is crucial to gather information and to assess [the mata mata turtle’s] exploitation throughout its distribution range to obtain a better understanding of its conservation status and to design appropriate conservation and management procedures,” the paper reads. Interestingly, however, it’s not the only recent study that has looked to genetics to help protect the future of exotic species.
In July 2020 a team of researchers from the U.K.’s University of Bristol announced the results of a study on the website ScienceDaily. The experts involved explored genetic variations between different populations of the American crocodile. And through their research, they hoped to learn more about how to conserve this endangered animal.
The American crocodile was first described by French zoologist Georges Cuvier in the early 19th century, and it can be found spread widely across North, Central and South America. But the creature has faced a number of threats over the years – despite its ability to thrive in saltwater conditions. And its numbers have drastically dwindled in certain parts of the world due to hunting, loss of habitat and pollution.
In 2007 the American crocodile was classified as threatened by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service – affording it protection under the Endangered Species Act. Though recent attempts to conserve the creatures have not been enough to stop further damage to their environment. Nevertheless, experts hope to take steps to re-establish these populations in the future.
Conservationists needed to gain a better understanding of the genetic makeup of different American crocodile populations in order to boost their numbers. And that’s where the team at the University of Bristol came in. They studied DNA belonging to specimens from seven different countries and were consequently able to identify variations between regions.
Finding variations between regional populations of the crocodiles means that conservationists can now tailor a repopulation program that takes into account different genetic requirements. And hopefully, this educated approach to preservation will prove a success. But could experts use the same methods to protect the mata mata turtle in years to come?
Elsewhere, 2020 is proving quite the year for genetic discoveries in the zoological world. That July a team of researchers from India, Russia and the United States announced that they had used DNA analysis to identify a new species. The Tetrastemma freyae is a type of nemertean worm, and it was found on a beach called Kovalam in Kerala, India.
“The genus Tetrasemma is a complex species group,” the Russian Academy of Science’s Dr Alexei Chernyshev told the Indian news outlet Research Matters in July 2020. “According to our data, tropical seas are inhabited by many nemertean species that remain to be discovered.”
Experts believe that the developing science of DNA taxonomy means that we may be seeing many more of these new discoveries in the decades to come. For years, researchers have been pointing to these methods as the future of species identification. And now the results are finally coming to fruition.
Advances in DNA taxonomy promise a bright future for those interested in conservation. After all, it is only by developing a better understanding of the creatures that inhabit our planet that we can hope to protect them against future threats. And with this knowledge, we can hope that the mata mata turtles of this world might survive to baffle and entertain future generations.