Mata mata

Second species in this genus only identified in 2020

J. Patrick Fischer

A remarkable freshwater species with a striking appearance and specialized hunting tactics found in the slow-moving rivers and blackwater streams of the Amazon and Orinoco basins in South America. This turtle’s physical appearance is one of the most distinct among chelonians, with a wide, flat, triangular head and a shell resembling a bark covered in ridges and knobby scales. These features provide excellent camouflage amidst leaf litter and fallen branches in their natural habitat, making the Mata Mata virtually indistinguishable from its surroundings.

The turtle’s head has multiple flaps of skin and barbels that mimic vegetation, enhancing its disguise. Its neck is long and flexible neck, allowing it to extend and retract easily, a vital adaptation for a creature that often waits for its food. This adaptation also enables the Mata Mata to position just its snout above the water surface to breathe while the rest of its body remains hidden from both prey and potential predators.

Mata Matas are ambush predators, employing a “sit-and-wait” strategy to capture their prey. They remain motionless in the water, mouth agape, creating an illusion of a safe hiding spot or passage for fish. When an unsuspecting fish swims close enough, the Mata Mata rapidly opens its large mouth, creating a vacuum that sucks the prey in with the water. The turtle then expels the water and swallows the prey whole, as it cannot chew due to its mouth’s structure.

Distribution

Country
Population est.
Status
Year
Comments
Bolivia
2020
Brazil
2020
Colombia
2020
Ecuador
2020
French Guiana
2020
Guyana
2020
Peru
2020
Suriname
2020
Trinidad & Tobago
2020
Venezuela
2020

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Terrestrial / Aquatic

Altricial / Precocial

Polygamous / Monogamous

Dimorphic (size) / Monomorphic

Active: Diurnal / Nocturnal

Social behavior: Solitary / Pack / Herd

Diet: Carnivore / Herbivore / Omnivore / Piscivorous / Insectivore

Migratory: Yes / No

Domesticated: Yes / No

Dangerous: Yes / No