Nocturnal and camoflagued, mata mata turtles hide in plain sight

When it comes to living in river ecosystems, few animals are as well adapted as mata mata turtles. These nocturnal reptiles are perfectly camouflaged for their murky freshwater surroundings—and, like many turtles, they can hold their breath for long periods of time. When mata matas need to breathe, they have a unique edge: Their narrow snouts are essentially built-in snorkels they can lift to the surface to sip in some air.


MATA MATA TURTLE Chelus fimbriatus

RANGE Northern South America, primarily in the Amazon and Orinoco rivers
SIZE Up to 1.5 feet long
WEIGHT Up to 38 pounds
DIET Fish and other small animals
HABITAT Bottom of rivers and other shallow, slow-moving freshwater

  1. SNOUT A long, tubular nose allows the turtle to breathe from beneath the water’s surface.
  2. MOUTH The turtle’s wide mouth opens with a strong vacuum-like force that sucks in both water and prey.
  3. HEAD Its flattened head and bumpy-skinned neck resemble leaf litter, helping it blend in with muddy river bottoms.
  4. SHELL A ridged carapace, typically covered in algae, camouflages the turtle.
  5. EYES Mata matas have good hearing but weak eyesight—they rely on sensory nerves around their head and neck to “see” their surroundings underwater.

SPLITTING UP Until recently, scientists believed the mata mata turtle was the only remaining species in the genus Chelus, but new research has shown that those living in the Amazon basin (Chelus fimbriatus, top) are genetically distinct from those living in the Orinoco basin (Chelus orinocensis, shown here).

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER The mata mata’s ability to conceal itself makes it a cunning hunter: It can sneak up on and swallow prey undetected.

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