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The Mata mata turtle, an amazing creature

Updated on September 12, 2015

The Mata mata turtle is one of the most fascinating-looking turtles on the planet. In a normal trekking trip through the marvelous Amazon forest, you might just pass by the turtle, without realizing it was even there. Their carapace is rough and knobby and contains different hues, such as blacks, reds, salmon, and brown colorations, giving them a sort of camouflaged look when set against the rustic trails often found in the wilderness. They usually inhabit slow moving, black waters streams, stagnant pools, marshes, and swamps. Often found in Northern Bolivia, Eastern Peru, Ecuador, Eastern Colombia, Amazon and Orinoco basins from Venezuela, and central Brazil. Despite being a strictly aquatic species, the mata mata prefers shallow waters, where they can reach the surface with their snout to breathe.

Their most notorious trait is their unusual form. They look like something that came out from an alien movie, but they´re just rugged, and if you look close enough, they’re not that bad. The species has a wide and flat head, a long neck covered with multiples warts and ridges, along a pointy nose. Their length is from 16 to 20 inches when fully grown. Each scute or scale of their shell is conical and contains a well-marked growth ring. Their mouths are extremely wide, and their snout long. The eyes are small and situated pretty close to the snout.

As for their longevity, exact details for the Mata mata lifespan is not yet known. However, most documentation shows that they can live up to 75 years. As the turtle gets older, the salmon color fades to yellows and browns. As for the reds they eventually turn brown or even black.

Some variations of these amazing amphibians exist, but you wouldn’t notice unless you look close enough. These variations differ in carapace shape, plastron and neck colors. Those born closer to the Amazon have a sub-rectangular carapace; those born in rivers such as the Orinoco have a more oval-shaped carapace. As for the neck colors in the Amazon breed, they tend have two prominent black bands in the lateral sides of the neck; this pattern is not present in the Orinoco population. These differences are consistent when compared to each others, and seem to indicate that two distinguishable species are present.

Mata Mata turtles don’t have the keenest eyes. In fact, they have a poor vision, but they make up for it with their superb tactile and auditory senses. Their rugged looks it not unrecompensed, inside their folds is a plenty amount of sensory nerves that enhance their amazing tactile sense.

These amphibians are carnivorous. Their diet is based mainly on fish, minnows, platies, mollies, guppies, goldfish and sunfish. Since their mandibles are not medially connected, and their weak jaws are not suited for chewing due to the lack of teeth, they depend on their well-developed, and long neck musculature to swallow their pray, and then digesting it whole inside their stomach.

As Mata mata turtles can give the impression they’re slow and lazy, their ability to win their bread is actually superb. When it is time to eat, you can see how smart these aquatic monsters are. Sometimes they remain still and they just wait for fish and other invertebrates to come within range. Then, the turtle will open their mouth wide allowing vast amounts of water to come into their jaws, along with the prey item, which is sucked in by the low pressure that is generated. Then, all excess water is cast out as they close their mouth. While the prey is being digested, the Mata mata turtle likes to swim making movements with its neck and head. These help them to break down their preys, making them capable of absorbing all the nutrients and energy they need. They have also been observed to mob fish into a limited space area and imprison them before feeding. They tend to use their many fringes on their necks to mimic algae and trick unwary fish that approach in search of food. When the prey notices the presence of the Mata mata turtle, it is already too late to escape from the predator.

Danger is closing in

Most of the time, the Mata matas are happy critters that roam free in the tropical jungles, but they have their problems too. Most health-related issues that affect this species are of water quality related. Unclean water or water with high pH that people pour into the streams endangers these turtles. Injuries to their feet or skins have been observed.

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