A new species of “one of the most bizarre turtles in the world” has been revealed through genetic testing and its discovery only doubles the reptile’s weirdness.
The mata mata turtle is part of the side-necked turtle family and is known around the world for its beady little eyes, large mouth, flat triangular head, and snorkel-like nose. Until now, it was believed that the charismatic South American turtle was the only species contained in the Chelus genus. New findings published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution conclude that the new-to-science species split around 13 million years ago during the Late Miocene. During this time, the Amazon-Orinoco Basin began separating into two rivers, spurring divisions in aquatic species that lived in the region and their eventual genetic divergence.
Previous studies have noted different physiological characteristics in individual mata mata turtles and researchers from Senckenberg Society for Nature Research went one step further, capturing wild turtles at night using a lantern and taking a small sample of their skin. Genomic DNA testing of 75 samples showed that there are two genetically and morphologically different species of the turtles: Chelus orinocensis of the Orinoco and Río Negro basins in South America and Chelus fimbriata, which is only found in the Amazon basin.
“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,” said Professor Dr Uwe Fritz of the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden, in a statement. “Until now, we assumed that there are only one species of this armored reptile that ranges widely across South America.”
The grandfather-esque turtles not only have skin flaps and tubercles covering their head and neck, but are typically covered in algae. When hidden in the mud, the 53-centimeter-long (21 inches) reptile looks like rocks covered in algae. This camouflage helps the ambush predator as it waits for potential prey such as small fish to come near before sucking it down using a highly specialized technique made possible by the animal’s unique skull bones.
C. orinocensis’ wacky looks make it a desirable animal for zoos and exhibits around the world. Though it is not considered endangered, the turtle is commonly collected for the pet trade in Colombia and Venezuela, presenting a “crucial” need for future study.
“To date, this species was not considered endangered, based on its widespread distribution. However, our results show that, due to the split into two species, the population size of each species is smaller than previously assumed,” said study lead author Professor Mario Vargas-Ramírez. “In addition, every year, thousands of these bizarre-looking animals end up in the illegal animal trade and are confiscated by the authorities.”