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What is the Mata Mata?

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  • Written By: B. Koch
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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Mata mata turtles, Chelus fimbriatus, are aquatic turtles that live in the shallow waters of northern South America. They use extensive camouflage for protection and to capture their prey. These turtles may grow to be 17 inches (43.18 centimeters) long and weigh 30 pounds (13.6 centimeters).

This turtle’s habitat includes northern South America, especially Brazil, the Guianas, and Venezuela. They inhabit muddy, shallow ponds, lakes, and slow moving rivers. Since mata matas do not swim very well, they do not live in deeper waters, and instead of swimming, they usually walk on the bottom of a stream or other shallow body of water. They are especially well adapted to these shallow waters, as they have a tubular nose extension that allows them to breathe while the rest of their body is just under the surface.

Typically, the shell of the mata mata turtle is black or brown with yellow or orange coloring, while its skin may range from an orange-brown to a grey-brown. Viewed from above, the head of the mata mata forms a broad triangle shape with a long, slender snout. The turtle also has distinctive flaps of skin around its neck. When they hatch, mata mata turtles may be only 3 inches (7.62 centimeters) long, though adults may become much larger. Their life expectancy about 10 years.

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The ability to remain camouflaged is one of the most significant traits of the mata mata turtle. Their coloring causes them to look like rocks when they are under the water. In addition, their unusual, fringed skin can give them the appearance of algae while they are underwater.

Mata mata turtles eat primarily fish and various invertebrates. Camouflage helps them to capture food, as do the flaps of skin on the neck. This extra skin is believed to contain nerves that can sense prey, even in murky waters. The turtles wait for food to come close to them, open their mouths, and expand their throats, sucking the prey into their mouths. The water is drained out of the mouth, and the prey is swallowed whole.

Often found in zoos, the mata mata turtle can exist in captivity. They require an enclosure of the appropriate size that is filled with shallow water. Since these turtles are rarely found on shore, very little space must be devoted to dry surface areas. In captivity, mata matas can be fed live bait fish, such as minnows, yet any type of fish will suffice as long as it is of the appropriate size.

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