9 Facts About The Mata Mata, The Weirdest Turtle Ever

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Denis Chan

What's the matter with that turtle? Nothing—it's a mata mata.

1. Mata matas aren't from Matamata.

Matamata is a rural New Zealand town that was the shooting location for Hobbiton in The Lord of the Rings. The mata mata turtle originates on the other side of the world in South America's Amazon and Orinoco basins.

2. They live in the leaf litter at the bottom of shallow streams.

Their leaf-shaped heads, bark-like flat shells, and ragged skin flaps make it easy to blend in.

3. You can take the mata mata out of the Amazon, but you can't take the Amazon out of the mata mata.

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You can tell where a mata mata comes from by its shell and coloration. Those from the Amazon have more rectangular shells and dark markings on their heads and necks. Orinoco locals have oval shells and pale necks.

4. This odd-looking turtle has been called a lot of names.

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Not just "needle nose" and "leafhead." The freshwater turtle was originally classified Testudo fimbriata in 1783 and has been renamed 14 times over the last 200 years, most recently in 1992. It's now known as Chelus fimbriatus.

The common name mata mata translates to "kill, kill" in Spanish. In South America, some people refer to unattractive women as "mata matas." Not cool, guys.

5. They're one of a kind.

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C. fimbriatus is the only extant species of its genus. Good thing mata matas are loners!

6. Mata matas don't bask or swim much.

Denise Chan

Mata matas are more sedentary than other turtles and only leave the water to lay their eggs. Instead of swimming, they prefer walking in slow-moving streams, marshes, and swamps. When kept as pets, they can thrive in a relatively small aquarium, because they don't move around much.

7. That said, they still get pretty big.

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Matas matas can grow up to two feet long, but most adults measure 16 to 20 inches. Should you invest in one as a pet—and invest you will, because they're pricey—you can expect to watch your little friend do pretty much nothing but eat for 40 to 75 years.

8. The mata mata's neck is longer than its vertebra.

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It's so long that the turtle can "snorkel," stretching its neck so its pointy proboscis can come up for air while it stays on the bottom of a stream.

Mata matas are part of the suborder Pleurodira. These so-called side-neck turtles can't actually tuck their heads into their shells. (Not that the mata mata's would fit anyway.) Instead, they bend them to the side.

9. They suck up fish like a vacuum.

Instead of hunting, mata matas wait for dinner to come to them. (Blending in with the vegetation definitely comes in handy.) When fish approach, the turtle stretches its neck out and opens its mouth wide to create a vacuum. Mata matas expel the water and swallow their prey whole, because their jaws are physically unable to chew. They're not the only turtles with this cool trick—snapping turtles practice suction feeding, too. Now who's hungry?

Sources: "The Matamata"; WhoZoo; Animal World; Science Blogs.

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June 30, 2014 - 5:00pm
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