Scientists Have Discovered a New Species of 'Bizarre' Mata Mata Turtle

Genetic analysis of the mata mata turtle in two different locations revealed that there is actually two species of the animal

new turtle species
Photo: Rune Midtgaard

Scientists in Germany have discovered a new species of the mata mata turtle!

Last week, researchers at the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden released a report in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution revealing that after conducting genetic analysis on mata mata turtles from two separate locations in northern South America, they found that there are "two genetically and morphologically well-differentiated species of mata mata turtles."

"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," explains Professor Dr. Uwe Fritz of the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden in the report. "Until now, we assumed that there is only one species of this armored reptile that ranges widely across South America."

Mata mata turtles are known for their distinct wedge-shaped heads with tiny eyes and wide mouths.

Fritz explained that several studies showed that turtles of the species found in the Orinoco River looked differently than those found in the Amazon basin. The mata mata turtles in the Amazon Basin showed some color variations on the skin and shell.

"Based on this observation, we decided to take a closer look at these animals' genetic makeup," he said.

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new turtle species
Mónica A. Morales-Betancourt

The team of researchers then looked at 75 DNA samples and were able to confirm that there are, in fact, two different species of the turtle.

"The newly described species Chelus orinocensis inhabits the Orinoco and Río Negro basins, while the species known as Chelus fimbriata is restricted exclusively to the Amazon basin," the report states.

Scientists say that the two species evolved during the late Miocene time period, around 13 million years ago. Around this time, the former Amazon-Orinoco Basin first began separating into the two river basins present today, causing numerous animal species in the area to be "spatially separated" and thus "diverge genetically."

The new finding might have important implications from a conservation standpoint, as the scientists involved in the study are now urging authorities to reassess the animal's conservation status.

"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," Professor Mario Vargas-Ramírez said.

"In addition, every year, thousands of these bizarre-looking animals end up in the illegal animal trade and are confiscated by the authorities," he added. "We must protect these fascinating animals before it is too late."

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