A low-key turtle with a unique style
Happy New Year, friends! Welcome to the first issue of Mouse and Minnow for 2022. We’re excited to be back for more weekly celebrations of animals. If you’re a new reader, you can always go back and explore previous issues by featured animal.
Now onto this week’s animal, a turtle who likes to lay low but still manages to stand out:
Quiet sits the matamata
Underneath the watawata
Dressed in camouflagaflaga
Like a leafy loggalogga.
Soon a fish he's caughtacaughta
That the current broughtabroughta.
He smiles at the thoughtathoughta:
”That sure hit the spotaspota.”
~ Marilyn Anne Campbell
Matamatas are wonderfully unique-looking freshwater turtles from South America. They have a knobby shell and fleshy fringes on their neck and face that help them look like algae-covered logs, rocks, and fallen leaves when they sit still underwater. And underwater is where they like to stay. Unlike turtles who enjoy basking in the sun, nocturnal matamatas are very comfortable staying submerged as much as possible in the still or slow-moving waters where they prefer to live.
Their natural camouflage is key to their hunting strategy, which involves holding still or moving very slowly until a small fish comes within range. Then, exactly when another turtle might snap out with a sharp beak, a matamata will instead open their wide mouth and create a vacuum that sucks the fish in whole.
Speaking of that mouth, it cuts across the matamata's flat, triangular head in a way that gives these turtles the look of having a permanent grin (at least to the human eye; fish probably don't find it as charming). Finishing out the matamata's look is a snorkel-like nose which, in shallow water, means they can take a breath just by stretching their long neck up rather than swimming to the surface.
Until 2020 the matamata was considered a single species, but after closer study scientists determined there were enough differences between matamata living in and around different river basins to split the animals into two separate species. The Amazon Matamata remains Chelus fimbriata while the "new" Orinoco Matamata is Chelus orinocensis.
But no matter the mata, these turtles have basically evolved to chill out and wait for food to come to them. So maybe that is a real smile after all.
Matamatas can be targets of illegal smuggling, but the development of rapid DNA testing kits for the turtles is helping officials quickly return recovered matamatas to their home waters. Read “DNA test kit saves thousands of Earth’s most bizarre turtles” on the Florida International University website for all the fascinating details.
See their camouflage in action with the YouTube video “Matamata Turtle in the Yasuni.” (Just some decomposing leaves, nothing to see here…)
And of course, watch a matamata vacuum up fish in the YouTube video “The Matamata Turtle” from New Atlantis Wild:
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Mouse and Minnow is co-created by partners Steve Alguire (illustration) and Marilyn Anne Campbell (writing). Learn more about the newsletter and use the free subscribe button below to receive original art and writing about animals right in your inbox.
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