A new species of mata mata turtle recently discovered has been described by scientists “as one of the most bizarre turtles of the world” and “one of the most charismatic.” This strange-looking freshwater turtle is found in the massive Orinoco river basin in Venezuela and eastern Colombia (hence its scientific name, Chelus orinocensis).
The discovery of the new species was published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. The Orinoco mata mata turtle hides in muddy river waters, resembling the appearance of rock. Only its small eyes give it away to the observer, or when it opens its huge mouth and sucks in its prey whole.
As co-author of the finding, Uwe Fritz said in a press release from the Senckenberg Institute in Germany, “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.” The study highlights the need for more research and protection for the strange armored reptiles, which are highly sought after in the exotic animal market.
The Smithsonian National Zoo explains, “The matamata turtle’s neck is wide, flattened and covered with warts, skin fringes and ridges. Its small eyes are nested at the sides of its large, flattened triangular head, and it has a wide mouth and long, tubular snout.”
Given that mata matas are not strong swimmers, this unusual appearance comes in very handy as a form of camouflage. “They remain largely motionless and camouflaged in the muddy waters they inhabit, which allows them to ambush their prey,” the Smithsonian states.
Although mata mata turtles have been known to Western scientists since the 18th century, it was long assumed that there was only one species (Chelus fimbriata). However, Fritz and the other researchers in the recently published study knew from previous research that the turtles seemed more diverse.
“Several studies have pointed out individual mata mata turtles look differently in the Orinoco River compared to the Amazon Basin. Based on this observation, we decided to take a closer look at these animals’ genetic makeup,” the study stated. In the end, DNA analyses revealed that these were two separate species.
They added, “Our molecular and morphological analyses revealed the existence of two distinct, genetically deeply divergent evolutionary lineages of matamatas that separated in the late Miocene (approximately 12.7 million years ago).” This is around the time that Orinoco river basin emerged, helping explain the split.
The two species share the strange-looking armored shells that camouflage perfectly as rocks, as well as the ability to suck in minnows and other small fish. According to Science Alert, the Orinoco mata mata turtles have a more oval-shaped shell, and their undersides lack the pigment of their Amazonian cousins.
The researchers’ discovery doesn’t just have implications for scientific understanding; it also underscores the need for conservation. Mario Vargas-Ramírez, one of the study’s co-authors, explained in the press release, “To date, this species was not considered endangered, based on its widespread distribution. However, our results show that, due to the split into two species, the population size of each species is smaller than previously assumed.”
In addition to the destruction of riverine habitat due to illegal logging and farming, the turtles are threatened by poachers. “[E]very year, thousands of these bizarre-looking animals end up in the illegal animal trade and are confiscated by the authorities,” Vargas-Ramírez adds. “We must protect these fascinating animals before it is too late.”