The mata mata turtle, adorned in a disguise resembling bark with spiky ridged scales, employs a vacuum-like technique to draw in prey. Sporting what seems like a perpetual smile, this peculiar creature boasts a disproportionately large head and elongated thick neck. The shell of the mata mata can reach nearly 45 centimeters (1.5 feet) in length and weigh around 17 kilograms (38 pounds), making it one of the largest freshwater turtles.
While its appearance may be unconventional by human standards, the mata mata’s unique features serve practical purposes. Inhabiting the Amazon and Orinoco basins in South America, these carnivorous and nocturnal turtles prefer hunting for small fish and aquatic invertebrates under the cover of darkness. Despite their formidable shells, they remain vulnerable to larger predators like crocodiles.
The oddities on the mata mata, such as warts, ridges (known as ‘tubercles’), and disc-like structures on its snout, contribute to its camouflage. Although these features might be considered aesthetically unpleasing to humans, they play a crucial role in mimicking decaying wood and swampy environments, deterring predators and attracting unsuspecting prey.
The turtle’s skin and shell also provide a surface for algae and weeds to grow, enhancing its camouflage as an uninviting piece of rock or wood.
The well-innervated flaps on its body serve a sensory function, detecting water vibrations akin to a cat’s whiskers, aiding in hunting and avoiding potential threats.
The mata mata exhibits a distinctive hunting method, herding prey into corners and creating a low-pressure vacuum to suction-feed. This behavior, combined with observations of problem-solving skills in captivity, suggests a level of intelligence beyond its peculiar appearance.
While mata mata turtles are not currently classified as endangered, their unique characteristics make them targets for pet hunters. Unfortunately, their challenging care requirements and aversion to handling often result in suboptimal conditions and health issues when kept in captivity.
Image credit: Joachim S. Müller