Most of the time I think turtles are pretty cute, but in the world of animals there are exceptions to every rule. The mata mata definitely falls into this category. I’ve never seen a funnier looking turtle.

The mata mata is so strange that it is placed in its own genus, Chelus. It is found in South America, in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins, as well as on the island of Trinidad. The mata mata lives entirely in water, usually in slow moving and brackish waters. Any disgusting looking pond will do, especially if the pond has a lovely muddy bottom.

See how strange it is!?  Photo source: http://smellslikeherpspirit.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/its-algae-its-rock-its-mata-mata.html
See how strange it is!?
Photo source: http://smellslikeherpspirit.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/its-algae-its-rock-its-mata-mata.html

As I’ve said, the mata mata is one odd looking turtle. Though it may look absolutely ridiculous, the mata mata is actually well designed to hide in its habitat. Its head is flat and triangular and covered with tubercles and barbels that make it look like a piece of debris. These projections, along with two flaps of skin on the turtle’s head, are thought to be involved in detecting water movements. The shell of the turtle can reach up to 45 cm, and has three ridges along it. Often algae will grow on the mata mata’s shell, further helping it camouflage in the water.

You can see how they might be good at hiding, especially in brackish waters with lots of debris.  Photo credit: Barbara L. Lundrigan via Animal Diversity Web
You can see how they might be good at hiding, especially in brackish waters with lots of debris.
Photo credit: Barbara L. Lundrigan via Animal Diversity Web

Mata matas are terrible swimmers, and prefer to walk on the bottoms of the waters they inhabit. Because of this, mata matas usually like to live in shallow waters, where they can reach the surface with their snout without needing to swim. Their laziness also extends to feeding – they sit camouflaged in the water until a fish comes close, and then open their mouths as wide as they can. This creates a vacuum, which sucks the fish into the mata mata’s mouth. All the turtle has to do then is snap its mouth closed and it has a tasty meal. Not too shabby if you ask me.

It definitely has a funny face.  Source: Wikipedia
It definitely has a funny face.
Source: Wikipedia

As with any funny looking reptile, the mata mata is highly desired in the pet trade. Fortunately this hasn’t had a huge impact on the species’ survival, as it is still common in its native range. Still, with the rate of habitat loss in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, we should probably start thinking about conserving these species before there’s a problem. But when have we ever been proactive when it comes to saving species? Anyway, hopefully these guys stay around for a while, because they are really great to look at.

Cover image credit: Joachim S. Müller

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