Chelus – Mata matas

Second species in this genus only described in 2020

The genus Chelus, comprising the fascinating species of the Mata Mata turtle and its recently identified relative, the Orinoco Mata Mata, presents a unique aspect of South American freshwater biodiversity. These turtles are renowned for their distinctive appearance and specialized hunting strategies, making them one of the most intriguing subjects of herpetological studies.

Native to the slow-moving rivers, streams, and swamps of South America, Chelus turtles are characterized by their large, flattened bodies and protruding, snorkel-like noses, which allow them to breathe while submerged in water. Their shells resemble fallen leaves or bark, providing excellent camouflage in their natural habitat, which is a critical adaptation for their ambush predatory lifestyle.

Chelus turtles are solitary creatures, primarily active at night when visibility in their murky waters is limited. Despite the low light conditions, these turtles are adept hunters thanks to their exceptional vision and light-reflecting eyes, which enhance their ability to detect prey. Their diet consists exclusively of aquatic invertebrates and fish captured with a sudden strike of their wide, gaping mouths. This feeding method, relying on the element of surprise rather than pursuit, is highly effective in low-visibility environments.

As carnivorous reptiles, Mata Mata turtles play a crucial role as predators in their ecosystems. By preying on small fish and aquatic invertebrates, they help maintain the balance of aquatic populations, preventing overpopulation and the resultant imbalances that could disrupt the ecosystem. This predatory role underscores the importance of Chelus turtles in the biodiversity and ecological health of South American freshwater systems.