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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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

Wikimedia Commons

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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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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iStock

Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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