Matamata: turtle-y awesome to the extreme


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...



* 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.


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.


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].


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!


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.


More like this

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.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

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.

By J. S. Lopes (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

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.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

OED claims "< Brazilian Portuguese matamatá (1631) < Tupi matamatá."

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

Unintentional HTML fail:

Here's theOED etymology,

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

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

By J. S. Lopes (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

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?

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

By John Harshman (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

freakishly weird

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

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

Being bitten by one is a most peculiar experience.

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.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

The matamata is pure turtle power!



By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

Strangest duck ever.

By LatterDay Thag (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

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.

Well, I don't doesn't fly, breathe fire, or befriend obnoxious children, doesn't seem that freakishly

By Craig York (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

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

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

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.

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".....

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.

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

By Bruce J. Mohn (not verified) on 25 Jun 2010 #permalink

I like how they're always smiling.

Theyre so full of joy.

By Spiralfish (not verified) on 25 Jun 2010 #permalink

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...

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 25 Jun 2010 #permalink

they need to show one of these on _River Monsters_!

By Anthony Docimo (not verified) on 25 Jun 2010 #permalink

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.

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

IIRC mata-mata in Malay means spy.

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."

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

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.) : $14.650817232370 (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.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

A bit more research:

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


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.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

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.

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...?

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 30 Mar 2011 #permalink