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A new mata mata turtle species has been discovered by scientists, after genetic research revealed what was believed to be one species is in fact actually two.

The mata mata is a reptile with a distinctive look from north South America. It has a large, rough shell which resembles algae-coated rocks, allowing it to lie camouflaged on the bed of the river where it is waiting for prey. It has a long snorkel-like snout and fleshy flaps protruding from its flat head, shaped as a triangle. New studies published in the journal of Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution suggest that the new-to-science organisms possibly split during the Late Miocene period around 13 million years ago. Diring that time the Amazon-Orinoco Basin started to split into two rivers during this period, spurring differences in aquatic species that existed in the region and their eventual genetic divergence.

New Mata Mata Turtle Geek Impulse
The newly described species Chelus orinocensis is common in the Orinoco and Río Negro basins. SENCKENBERG NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTIONS DRESDEN

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. “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.”

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