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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus)

Mata Mata
Chelus fimbriatus (Schneider, 1783)

Range: Northern South America
Habitat: Wetlands, Slow Rivers
Diet: Small Fish, Frogs
Social Grouping: Asocial
Lifespan: 15 Years (Captivity)
Reproduction: May nest several times during a season (usually November through December), the 12-18 eggs are laid in riverbanks where the incubate for approximately 80 days (may be as long as 200 days), depending on temperature
Conservation Status: Not Listed

  • Shell length is 50 centimeters, weight as much as 15 kilograms
  • One of the most unique-looking reptiles on the planet; the flattened shell has three lumpy ridges, the head is flattened and triangular with a small breathing snorkel, and the skin on the head, neck, and legs is covered with tubercles and flaps of skin, resembling algae.  The large head cannot be drawn into the shell; instead, the neck wraps to the side
  • The shell of juveniles is mahogany on top, salmon-colored on the bottom, though the color tends to fade with age
  • Mata matas are ambush predators, lying in wait at the bottom of the water (they rarely swim); when suitable prey approaches, the turtle opens its mouth and expands its throat to create a vacuum, sucking in the water with the prey
  • Very rarely seen on land, and does not bask as many other turtles do.  When they do breathe, they do so by stretching their neck upwards and using their snorkel-like noses; in fact, this species can remain underwater for hours at a time, absorbing oxygen through the cloaca
  • The Latin name translates to "Fringed Turtle"; the name "Mata Mata" is supposedly from a South American dialect translating to "I Kill"
  • Faces little direct hunting pressure (possibly due to bizarre appearance and reported bad taste), but sometimes taken accidentally in bottom-raking seine nets.  Also heavily prized in private collections
  • Very difficult to breed in captivity - one theory is that the water needs to have a certain level of acidity to help hatchlings escape the shell
  • Unconfirmed rumors persist of an established population of mata matas introduced to southern Florida; mata matas are also seen on Trinidad, but it is unclear whether they are found their naturally, were introduced, or are vagrants from the mainland

Zookeeper's Journal: Unless you're a specialist or a hobbyist, most freshwater turtles begin to look the same after a while.  No one who has ever seen a mata mata, however, is likely to confuse it with anything else.  A master of camouflage, the mata mata blends so perfectly into the leaf litter of South American wetlands that it rarely needs to move; instead, its prey comes to it.  What's always impressed me the most about this turtle isn't the sight, however, it's the sound!  Feeding a mata mata is like feeding an underwater shop-vac... including the gulping noise it makes.  Except for the noises they make when they... you know... it's the only sound I ever remember hearing from a turtle.

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