Tetrapod Zoology

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Over the weekend my family and I visited Amazon World Zoo Park on the Isle of Wight. I saw tons of new stuff and had a great time, but what might have been my favourite creature is one that would have been all but ignored by the vast majority of visitors. I’m talking about the Matamata Chelus fimbriatus*, a bizarre South American river turtle that is as amazing in biology and behaviour as it is in appearance. Amazon World had two of them…

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* The name is sometimes written (incorrectly) as Chelus fimbriata.

Matamatas are freakishly weird: they’ve even been referred to as “one of the strangest creatures on earth” (Ernst & Barbour 1989). It’s said that, across parts of the Matamata’s range, particularly ugly women are referred to as matamatas. It’s also said that the word ‘matamata’ means ‘kill, kill, kill’. I have no idea whether this is true (and, if so, exactly what it refers to), but really hope it is. Matamatas occur across the major drainages of northern Bolivia, eastern Peru, Ecuador, eastern Colombia, Venezuela, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru and northern and central Brazil. They also occur on both Trinidad and Tobago: it’s been suggested that they were transported to these islands following big mainland floods (Ernst & Barbour 1989). Their presence in Suriname is unconfirmed.

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The large, flattened head is triangular in dorsal view, with huge flaring ‘ear flaps’ that extend laterally from the back of the skull. The eyes are small and placed well anteriorly, close to the base of the short, trunk-like proboscis. This proboscis – superficially similar to that seen in softshell turtles – allows the animal to reach the surface when submerged, and there are lots of photos and paintings that show matamatas engaging in this behaviour. In fact, I think I’ve found another of those ‘artwork memes’. I recall seeing various ‘snorkelling’ matamatas in various children’s books on reptiles. Above, we see a photo (taken by Francis Miller) from the Time-Life International 1963 volume The Reptiles (Carr 1963). Now scroll down… and you’ll note that various bits of art from the 1970s depicted matamatas in uncannily similar fashion.

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Two barbels are present on the chin and the jaws are weak and lack longitudinal ridges like those seen in many other turtles. The mouth is really wide, extending right across the face when the animal is seen in front view. The ears are particularly large (by which I mean the tympanic cavities and tympanic membranes).

The Matamata neck is remarkably long (longer than the rest of the vertebral column) and very thick (more on matamata neck evolution and function later). As in other side-necked turtles, the animal folds the neck away to the side when wanting to conceal its head (one question about side-necked turtles: are individuals, or members of a given species, consistent in whether they retract their necks to the left or to the right? Photos show both ‘left-handedness’ and ‘right-handedness’). Tassel-like outgrowths of the skin decorate the sides of the neck [matamata painting above from Burton & Burton (1974); the one below comes from a Macdonald First Library book called Snakes and Lizards. My battered copy is missing all publication details, and I can't find them online].

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The brownish or blackish carapace (which can be as much as 52 cm long) is subrectangular or oval and has three bumpy keels running along its dorsal surface. These sometimes do look like keels in the true sense, but in other individuals they consist of rows of tall lumps. The shell’s posterior border is prominently serrated and the plastron is much narrower than the carapace. Musk ducts (ha ha, not to be confused with a certain species of bizarre Australian waterfowl) exit near the rear corner of the ‘bridge’ (the region of the shell that connects the sides of the plastron and carapace). I don’t know how widely appreciated it is that many turtle groups produce strong-smelling musks via specialised glands on the sides of their shells: it’s certainly not as well known as it should be. Algae frequently grows on the Matamata’s shell, aiding its camouflage.

Having mentioned carapace length, it should be noted that 40-50 cm is very large; when the long neck is added, the animal can approach 100 cm in total length. This makes the Matamata the largest chelid, and in fact rather large compared to turtles in general (I tried to find average carapace lengths or total lengths in turtles as a whole – starting with Moen (2006) – but failed). One 1906 record referred to matamatas with carapace lengths of over 120 cm and total lengths of over 220 cm. It would be incredible if such monsters existed, but the data has not been accepted and seems exaggerated (see Pritchard 2008). More on size later!

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Matamata populations exhibit a reasonable amount of variation in colour, and there’s been suggestion at times that subspecies should be recognised. Animals from the Amazon are definitely different from those of the Orinoco: the former have rectangular, heavily pigmented shells and very dark markings on their heads and necks, while the latter have oval shells and have pale necks and plastra (Pritchard 2008).

This is a really brief introduction: phylogeny, fossils and feeding behaviour will follow! As usual, try not to ruin all the surprises in advance!!

For previous Tet Zoo articles on turtles see…

Refs – -

Burton, M. & Burton, R. 1974. The Life of Reptiles and Amphibians. Macdonald and Co, London.

Carr, A. 1963. The Reptiles. Time/Life, New York.

Ernst, C. H. & Barbour, R. W. 1989. Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C. & London.

Moen DS (2006). Cope’s rule in cryptodiran turtles: do the body sizes of extant species reflect a trend of phyletic size increase? Journal of evolutionary biology, 19 (4), 1210-21 PMID: 16780522

Pritchard, P. C. H. 2008. Chelus fimbriatus (Schneider 1783) – Matamata turtle. In Rhodin, A. G. J., Pritchard, P. C. H., van Dijk, P. P., Saumure, R. A., Buhlmann, K. A. & Iverson, J. B. (eds) Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises: A Compilation Project of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. Chelonian Research Foundation, pp. 020.1-020.10.

Comments

  1. #1 Pteryxx
    June 24, 2010

    Yay matamatas! I drew a matamata-based character for someone once and I’ve been curious about them ever since.

    (shameless plug)

  2. #2 David Marjanović
    June 24, 2010

    Well, mata, mata means kill, kill in Spanish and presumably Portuguese; compare matador. But I bet that’s a coincidence and the name comes from a local language.

  3. #3 J. S. Lopes
    June 24, 2010

    The name in Portuguese is mata-matá, with an acute accent (pronounce like ma-tah-ma-tah) and it’s not mata-mata (“kills-kills”), its names is probably Amerindian.

  4. #4 Sven DiMilo
    June 24, 2010

    I don’t know how widely appreciated it is that many turtle groups produce strong-smelling musks via specialised glands on the sides of their shells

    Anyone who doubts this is welcome to come turtle-trapping with me some time–I’ll introduce you to the Common Musk Turtle, aka Stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus, no kidding).

    Matamatas are, it goes without saying, awesome. For a pleurodire.

  5. #5 neil
    June 24, 2010

    OED claims “< Brazilian Portuguese matamatá (1631) < Tupi matamatá.”

    “Mata” also means forest in Portuguese, though that is probably just a coincidence.

  6. #6 neil
    June 24, 2010

    Unintentional HTML fail:

    Here’s theOED etymology,

    Brazilian Portuguese matamatá (1631) [from] Tupi matamatá.

  7. #7 J. S. Lopes
    June 24, 2010

    “Mata” means “forest” in Portuguese (e.g.: Mata Atlantica = Atlantic Forest”), but it’s not linked to matamatá’s name.

  8. #8 Frank
    June 24, 2010

    Yeah, “mata” is Portuguese and Spanish for “kill” (imperative), and also means in Portuguese “forest”, “wilderness”.

    But the name is probably amerindian in origin. Doesn’t sound like Tupi though… perhaps Arowak?

  9. #9 Albertonykus
    June 24, 2010

    The matamata is pure turtle power!

  10. #10 neil
    June 24, 2010

    Good call by Frank:

    “matamata” shows up in an Arowak (Wapisiana) vocabulary published by by Farabee in 1918.

  11. #11 John Harshman
    June 24, 2010

    Yes, turtles are all very nice, I’m sure. But what about the ducks?

  12. #12 daedalus2u
    June 24, 2010

    Kowabunga!

  13. #13 Andreas Johansson
    June 24, 2010

    freakishly weird

    One of these days, Darren, you’ll have to blog about a tetrapod that’s not freakishly weird. :p

  14. #14 Lars
    June 24, 2010

    Being bitten by one is a most peculiar experience.

  15. #15 CS Shelton
    June 24, 2010

    The Matamata neck is remarkably long (longer than the rest of the vertebral column)

    I saw an anhinga skeleton in a book once that seemed to have a similarly insano neck proportion. I’d really love to see one of those IRL sometime.

    Being bitten by one is a most peculiar experience.

    Do tell, Lars.

  16. #16 David Marjanović
    June 24, 2010

    The matamata is pure turtle power!

    Kowabunga!

    *giggle*

  17. #17 LatterDay Thag
    June 24, 2010

    Strangest duck ever.

  18. #18 Lars
    June 24, 2010

    Do tell, Lars

    Sorry, didn’t mean to sound as though I was trying to be cajoled.

    It’s…gummy. And suctiony. And there is a deep “Thtunk!!!” sort of sound, more felt than heard.

    A good chunk of your whole hand vanishes into the turtle’s mouth and then is returned to you unscathed. But you go about clutching it in your other hand for a minute or two anyway because it felt so weird.

    Also you are aware that you have been the subject of a very unusual feeding strategy, for a chelonian.

  19. #19 Craig York
    June 24, 2010

    Well, I don’t know…it doesn’t fly, breathe fire, or befriend obnoxious children, doesn’t seem that freakishly
    weird.

  20. #20 CS Shelton
    June 24, 2010

    Thanks, Lars. It was everything I imagined it could be!

  21. #21 Alice Bluegown
    June 25, 2010

    Wasn’t this critter deemed to have inspired the great ‘Moha-Moha’ hoax?

  22. #22 Robert
    June 25, 2010

    Alice Bluegown – the critter said to be responsible for the Moha Moha sighing is the Fly River Turtle – an Australian species.

    See this link for more information.

    http://everything2.com/title/Moha+Moha

    I first read about the Moha Moha in Tim Dinsdale’s book “The Leviathans” – even in a book dealing with aquatic cryptozoology, the Moha Moha was in a section entitled “Oddities”…..

  23. #23 Jason S.
    June 25, 2010

    By strange coincidence, I just found a stuffed matamata last week in the collections of the New Jersey State Museum. I have no idea why we would have it. Unfortunately, it’s in really bad shape.

  24. #24 Bruce J. Mohn
    June 25, 2010

    I can’t speak for all pleurodires, but my Pelomedusa subrufa is definitely handed. He always turns his head to the right.

  25. #25 Spiralfish
    June 25, 2010

    I like how they’re always smiling.

    Theyre so full of joy.

  26. #26 Sven DiMilo
    June 25, 2010

    The mouth is really wide, extending right across the face when the animal is seen in front view.

    I like how they’re always smiling.

    Illustrated nicely here.

    Please show a skull…

  27. #27 Anthony Docimo
    June 26, 2010

    they need to show one of these on _River Monsters_!

  28. #28 Alice Bluegown
    June 29, 2010

    Robert @ #22 – thanks for that, I think it was the similarity of the name fooled my memory (also, was at work, so couldn’t dive for the Heuvlemans!). Obviously, the Moha-Moha would be inspired by an Australian species.

  29. #29 Hai~Ren
    June 29, 2010

    Just a little note to point out that Cameron McCormick has also previously blogged about matamata here (includes video footage of feeding behaviour).

  30. #30 Darren Naish
    June 30, 2010

    Lord Geekington is getting appropriate credit in part II.

  31. #31 DDeden
    July 7, 2010

    IIRC mata-mata in Malay means spy.

  32. #32 Chris Winter
    August 1, 2010

    DDeden wrote: “IIRC mata-mata in Malay means spy.”

    Any connection with Mata Hari?

    FWIW, Wikipedia’s disambiguation page says that “matahari” is the Malay word for “sun.”

  33. #33 Chris Winter
    August 1, 2010

    Darren Naish wrote: “…the one below comes from a Macdonald First Library book called Snakes and Lizards. My battered copy is missing all publication details, and I can’t find them online…”

    A bit of research: The Library of Congress catalog reveals three books with the title Snakes and Lizards. They are all short books under 50 pages, probably children’s books. (Two of them definitely are.) Here’s the citation for the one by Dean Morris:

    Snakes and lizards / words by Dean Morris.
    Milwaukee, WI: Raintree Childrens Books, c1988. 47 p. : ill., some col. ; 24 cm.
    ISBN: 0817232125 (lib. bdg.) : $14.65 0817232370 (pbk.)

    I list this one because Googling for “Macdonald First Library” gives a link to a book called “Spiders” by that author, published by Macdonald.

  34. #34 Chris Winter
    August 1, 2010

    A bit more research:

    Addition (sic): U. S. A. ed.
    Imprint: New York : Macdonald Educational, 1975.
    Physical Description: 31 p. : col. ill. ; 19 cm.

    From: http://tinyurl.com/23u96vp

    So it looks like the U.S. arm of Macdonald & Co. (London) published this book in 1975 and it was then picked up by Raintree in 1977.

  35. #35 Suzy Q
    March 29, 2011

    Mata-mata means spy in Indonesian. Mata means kill in Spanish. Mata means forest in Portuguese because it comes from the idea that spies hide in the forest to be camouflaged. These are all related to why this turtle is named matamata because it has evolved so that it camouflages with its surroundings (looking like dead leaves, etc.) and it sits and waits for a long time, hiding, until it’s prey comes by and it snatches them up with lightning speed – all of which relates to being a spy and killing and camouflaging.

  36. #36 David Marjanović
    March 30, 2011

    These are all related to why this turtle is named matamata

    This hypothesis fails to explain why the stress is on the last syllable (matamatá), and it fails to take comment 5 into account.

    Surely you didn’t comment here without reading all previous comments…?

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