Turtle, Matamata


Chelus fimbriatus


A Matamata’s most striking features are its head and neck region. Viewed from above, the head is a broad triangle in shape with a very long, slender snout forming one tip of the triangle. All along the head and long, muscular necks are small, multi-branched tufts or flaps of flesh. These loose tufts drift and sway with any current in the water or movement of the turtle, making the turtle appear as if it was covered with weeds or algae. The Matamata Turtle can weigh up to 27 pounds, making it one of the largest freshwater turtles. Females are generally larger than males. In adults the carapace is usually black or brown with some orange color, while the plastron ranges in color from a light yellow to a deeper brown shade. Each individual clamina (horny plate) can be fairly rough in appearance, due to the way that the clamina grows. Three keels run the length of the carapace; these keels result from the center of each clamina rising up to form a knob, with the highest knobs at the back of the carapace. The skin of the Matamata varies from an orange-brown to a gray-brown tone. The eyes of the Matamata are very small and situated very near the snout. This tends to
indicate they are of little value in capturing prey. The limbs are poorly developed.

Hatchling Matamatas are more colorful than adults. The carapace is light brown with a dark stripe running down the center, while the plastron is pink, as are the undersides of the juvenile’s limbs and throat. Three narrow black stripes run from the top of the head back along the neck. Usually there are a series of pinkish blotches on scutes along the edge of the carapace, with darker blotches on the more interior scutes. All of these juvenile colorations tend to darken or disappear as the turtle ages, however.

Family

Chelidae

Order

Class

Range

Located mostly in the countries of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. They are also found on the island of Trinidad.

Habitat

The Matamata inhabits muddy, sometimes stagnant, shallow pools and streams in northern South America, where it ranges as far west as Ecuador and Peru, as far south as Bolivia and central Brazil, and as far north as Colombia and Venezuela.

Life Expectancy

15 years in captivity

Sexual Maturity

5 Years

Diet

Fishes, amphibians, freshwater crustaceans

Status

Not listed

Behaviors

This is a highly aquatic turtle that lives in fairly shallow water like the backwater pools, the oxbows and lakes of the Amazon River system. These turtles cannot live in deep water for two main reasons. First is they are not very good swimmers and because of this they just use the length of their neck (which is longer than their vertebral column or back) to extend their snorkel like nose just about the water. Looking like a pile of rocks or debris, a hungry turtle rests quietly on the bottom, occasionally stretching its long neck up until its snorkel-like nose can be used to take a breath. It will remain almost motionless underwater until a fish comes too close to the Matamata’s mouth. At this point, the turtle thrusts out its head and opens its large mouth as wide as possible. This acts like a vacuum cleaner; the prey and a large amount of water are rapidly sucked into the turtle’s mouth and throat, which can be stretched out quite a bit. The Matamata snaps its mouth shut, the water is slowly expelled, and the fish is swallowed whole. The prey has to be appropriately sized for the turtle; Matamatas cannot chew very well due to the way their mouths are constructed. Matamatas in the wild may use other methods in addition to the “ambush” approach to capture prey. Occasionally some specimens in captivity have been observed slowly herding fish into a confined area before sucking them into their mouth. Prior to mating the male turtle will extend its heads towards the female while opening and closing its mouth. After mating, female Matamatas in their natural environment will lay one to two dozen eggs. This generally occurs in the months of October through December, depending on location. These brittle-shelled eggs are almost round and about 3.5 centimeters in diameter. A rather long incubation time of just over 200 days at 28 to 29 degrees C. has been reported for Matamata eggs hatched in captivity.

Adaptions

The use of camouflage and disguise gives the Matamata the chance to take full advantage of its environment in hunting for food. All of the physical features of the Matamata aid it in its natural environment. Algae grow on the roughened carapace, causing it to look like an old, encrusted rock. The tufts and fringes along the neck and head may act as a type of camouflage, breaking up the turtle’s outline to further disguise it. There is some debate as to whether or not the flaps of skin also serve as sensory mechanisms to allow the turtle to detect nearby movement. Finally, the color of its shell and skin allows the Matamata to blend in to its surroundings.

Special Interests

Translated from Spanish, matamata means, “I kill, I kill”. There is this tribe of native Indians in Colombia that the women are said to be quite “homely” These women are said to have a “cara de matamata”, which means “face of a matamata”.

Folklore

Conservation

Jacksonville Zoo History

Exhibit

Range of the Jaguar