Matamata

Update of post on November 16, 2013

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The matamata is a large, weird-looking turtle living in South America. Probably the weirdest things about this turtle are on its neck and head. It has a bunch of flaps of skin coming off its neck, and its head looks almost like a triangle! These animals also have snorkel-like tubes coming off the end of their snouts.

There are two main differences between the males and females. First of all, males have much longer and thicker tails than the females do. Because not much of the tail of the matamata shown above is visible, I would guess it is a female, but I am not positive. The other difference is impossible to tell from the picture above as it deals with the plastron, which is the lower part of the shell. Males have a concave plastron (meaning it curves inward), while females have a flat one.

The coloring and texture of this turtle are beneficial to it as they make it harder for predators and prey to see them. The flaps on their necks, which I mentioned earlier, make the turtle look like a piece of plant matter, especially when it is in murky water. A lot of its shell may also become covered in algae, making it even harder to see.

When they are young, matamatas are normally pale pink or reddish-brown in color with black and green speckles. As they mature, the pink turns to faded yellow, brown, orange, or gray. This turtle’s shell has three rows of peaks that run down its back. They are rather large peaks, so there are only around four in a row.

Size

Theses turtles can be rather large, much larger than you would probably expect from the picture above. They can have a shell length of up to 18 inches (45 cm), and they weigh as much as 33 pounds (15 kg)! I would guess, though, that the one shown above is not quite this large.

I could not find a measurement for the matamata including its head and tail, but this is probably because its head and neck can retreat inside its shell, making it not always the same length. I did see a picture of a matamata that looked like its total body length was about twice as long as its shell length. If the largest matamatas were like this, they would be up to 16 inches (90 cm) from nose tip to tail tip! Females are usually a little bit larger than the males.

Diet and hunting

These turtles are entirely carnivorous. They feast on a variety of animals such as fish, insects, amphibians, crustaceans, small mammals, and even birds! Fish, amphibians, and crustaceans are their main prey, as these are the ones that are most commonly found in the matamata’s habitat. In zoos, they are usually fed fish.

The tube on the end of this turtle’s snout helps it breathe while lying almost completely submerged under water. This helps them disturb the surface of the water as little as possible, so as not to alert potential prey to its presence.

Another use for the flaps on the matamata’s neck comes in detecting prey. The flaps are very sensitive, so even though the turtle has terrible eyesight, it can use the flaps to detect vibrations caused by nearby movement.

These animals have a very interesting way of feeding. When they sense their next meal is close by, they slowly turn their head so it points to the victim. Instead of jumping out at the animal or extending its neck towards it like you probably think it would do, the matamata just opens its mouth really fast.

This may seem pointless, but the quick movement creates a vacuum in the turtle’s mouth. The water around it rushes in to fill the empty space, bringing with it a tasty morsel for the matamata to enjoy.

Habitat and range

These turtles live in several different river systems in South America. The main two are the Amazon and the Orinoco rivers. They are native to several countries in the continent, including Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia. They also occur off the mainland on the island of Trinidad.

There have been some reports of matamatas in southern Florida, but it is not known if there is a self-sustaining population living there. Any turtles here are not native but are introduced, likely from people releasing them after finding them too hard to keep as pets.

Matamatas are extremely bad swimmers, which limits their habitat in two ways. First of all, they must stay in shallow water so they can reach the surface to breathe. If they go too deep, they will be unable to swim up to the surface. They also cannot live in fast moving waters, as these are likely to carry them away.

Normally, these creatures live in slow-moving streams as these are some of the few bodies of water that fit their needs. Sometimes they will inhabit lakes or ponds, but if they do this, they must stay close to the shore so it doesn’t get too deep. Matamatas spend almost all of their time in the water.

Status and threats

These turtles have not been classified by any major conservation group. They have no known natural predators, as their large size, camouflage, and thick shell make them hard to find and eat.

Their main threat is habitat destruction, but they are also captured for the pet trade and for food. I don’t understand how a creature this ugly could be appetizing, but evidently some people like it. Although they are not yet classified, it is thought that matamatas will soon need conservation efforts to keep them alive.

Reproduction and young

The mating season for these turtles runs from October to December, as this is the spring where these turtles live. In order to gain the female’s acceptance, a male matamata will extend his head towards her while opening and closing her mouth.

Not long after mating, the female lays 12 to 28 eggs. These eggs are almost spherical, and they are about 1.4 inches (3.5 cm) in diameter. This is just a little bit smaller than a ping-pong ball!

The eggs are incubated for about 200 days in a nest which the female digs before laying them. She does not guard the eggs before they hatch. Because of this, the young are on their own the moment they hatch. It is unknown how long these turtles live in the wild, but they usually live around 15 years in captivity. In rare occasions, they have been reported to live up to 75 years!

Don’t forget to scroll down and comment your guess about what the next animal is!

Mystery Animal

Sources:

Photo credits:

  • Matamata – J. Patrick Fischer
  • Mystery animal – Wikipedia user: Alex.vasenin
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