New Bizarre Species of Turtle Discovered By Scientists

Scientists have discovered a new species of mata mata turtle, after genetic analysis revealed what was thought to be one species is actually two.

The mata mata is a distinctive-looking reptile from northern South America. It has a large, rough shell that resembles algae-coated rocks, which enables it to lie camouflaged on the riverbed where it waits for prey. It has a long snorkel-like snout and fleshy flaps protruding from its flat head, which is shaped like a triangle.

Until recently, it was believed to be the last living member of of the genus Chelus.

"Although these turtles are widely known due to their bizarre looks and their unusual feeding behavior, surprisingly little is known about their variability and genetics," Professor Uwe Fritz of the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden said in a statement.

"Several studies have pointed out individual mata mata turtles look differently in the Orinoco River compared to the Amazon Basin. Based on this observation, we decided to take a closer look at these animals' genetic makeup."

Fritz is one of the authors of a study published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. In it, the team report that genetic analysis of 75 DNA samples that the mata mata turtle is two distinct species. Chelus orinocensis, which is found in the Orinoco and Río Negro basins and the Essequibo drainage, and Chelus fimbriata, found in the Amazon basin and the the Mahury drainage.

The two species split from a common ancestor approximately 12.7 million years ago during the late Miocene, the researchers say. It was during this period that the Amazon-Orinoco Basin split into the two basins that exist today. This separation caused many water-dwelling species, including the mata mata, to form two populations that inhabited the different geographic regions. Over time, the populations diverged and evolved to form two genetically and morphologically different species.

Scientists have identified a new species of mata mata turtle
Scientists have identified a new species of mata mata turtle. Senckenberg Natural History

The study supports observations that the two species can be identified by their shape and coloring. C. orinocensis has a lighter coloration and a more rounded shell compared to that of the C. fimbriata, which is darker and has a more rectangular shell.

The scientists say their findings could have important implications from a conservation standpoint. The mata mata is not considered endangered, but the study authors urge authorities to reassess the animal's conservation status, highlighting the species' popularity on the exotic pet market.

"Our results show that the stocks are smaller than previously assumed due to the splitting into two types," said lead author Professor Mario Vargas-Ramírez, who now works at the National University of Colombia. "In addition, every year, thousands of these bizarre-looking animals end up in the illegal animal trade and are confiscated by the authorities. We must protect these fascinating animals before it is too late."

Benjamin Tapley, curator of reptiles and amphibians at Zoological Society of London (ZSL), told Newsweek scientists have mentioned differences in the morphology of the mata mata from different parts of their range since the 1960s, so the results of the study were not totally unexpected. However, it does highlight the need to assess the extinction risk posed to these two species. According to Tapley, habitat loss and degradation are both likely threats to mata mata turtles, as is the exotic pet market. However, data on the scale of the trade is lacking.

"There are reports of mata mata—including the newly described species—being exported in Europe and the U.S. and there are some reports of illegal exportation of mata mata for exotic pet markets," said Tapley.

"International trade is not currently considered to be a major threat to the mata mata and the genus is not included on any of the appendices of Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna," he explained.

"However, the scientists describing the new species have outlined an important need to collect data on mata mata exploitation throughout the distribution range as it may be a threat that has not yet been fully appreciated."

The article has been updated to include comments from Benjamin Tapley, Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at ZSL.

Mata Mata turtle
The newly described species Chelus orinocensis is common in the Orinoco and Río Negro basins. Senckenberg Natural History Collections Dresden