Wildlife Watch: Matamata Turtle

October 03, 2013

matamata-turtle-amazonThe matamata is truly one of the world’s most unique and bizarre turtles. One look at this species and it's pretty obvious that this turtle is something very different, especially when compared to the North American species that many of us are familiar with. 

The matamata attains a large size with big females being up to 16 inches in carapace (shell) length. The turtle is amazingly cryptic and difficult to find. Once found by the naturalist on your Amazon cruise, you'll have to strain your eyes to try and discern the turtle from the detritus (leaf litter) where these turtles typically spend much of their time. Their carapace is well-camouflaged, with three distinctive ridges running lengthwise down the shell. The neck is extremely long yet when with-drawn, it pulls into the shell in a side-ways fashion to allow the long neck and head to be partially protected. The head has a very unique shape -- almost triangular with a long, pointed snout. These turtles typically lay quietly on the bottom in water just deep enough that their long necks and pointed snout reach the surface to breathe without swimming to the surface. 

Another astonishing feature is the matamata’s method of feeding. The turtle has a huge mouth, and as an unsuspecting fish swims by, the turtle rapidly lunges forward and opens its mouth to vacuum in copious amounts of water as well as the completely unsuspecting fish. The water is then expelled leaving only the fish in the mouth to be swallowed. To watch a matamata turtle in an aquarium is like watching something alien; the lunge and mouth suction is so rapid it is difficult to detect with the naked eye.

Matamata turtles are often kept in Amazon River villages, where the local riberenos try to sell them to tourists. Baby matamatas are quite adorable and their plastron (belly) is pink and their carapace is a very light tan in color. As with all wildlife, please do not participate in paying to take pictures of captive animals, and certainly do not buy them as they cannot legally be brought back into the United States. Paying to have your picture taken with any animal just encourages this unfortunate behavior by the local people.
 

Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history, photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.