Critter Cameo – Mysterious Matamata

June 25, 2008

First, I must apologize for the delay!  I had some “technical difficulties” concerning the photos I had taken of our Matamata and simply couldn’t write up a blog without them.  At any rate, here they are, and here is the Mysterious Matamata!


The Mysterious Matamata

The Matamata, Chelus fimbriatus, is one of the largest freshwater turtles, reaching up to 27 lbs with a carapace (shell) of 18 inches long.  His common name translates to “I kill” in Spanish, possibly referring to his voracious appetite, but the Latin name Chelus fimbriatus translates to “fringed turtle,” a physical description of the adult’s appearance. 

The Matamata is from the northern parts of South America, found in slow moving bodies of water including the Amazon and Orinoco.  They blend in very well with mud, leaves, and other plant matter. Their broad, flat heads and long necks are covered in bumps, ridges, flaps of skin, and protuberances.  As these turtles spend much of their time in one spot, rarely moving about and only leaving the water to lay their eggs, their shells can accumulate a lot of algae, adding to their camouflage.

They are sit-and-wait predators, letting the camouflage of their carapace, neck, and legs hide them from unsuspecting fish. As the fish swim by, the Matamata rapidly reach out their long necks and use their wide mouth to vacuum up their prey. Similar to a baleen whale, when the Matamata open its mouth to catch its prey, the throat opens up and allows a big rush of water to suck the prey inside it’s mouth.  The turtle then slowly drains the water out and swallows the prey whole.  Occasionally, they may also eat other small vertebrates and invertebrates, but the majority of their prey are small fish.  They prefer to live in shallow water so that they can comfortably reach their long necks up to the surface, using their proboscis-like nose to reach the air. 

The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Matamata was purchased for the Frogs! A Color of Chorus exhibit 1.5 years ago.  He seemed to be a relatively easy animal to take care of…at first.  He would eat 30-40 Black Salty goldfish a week without complaint.  As time went by, we had a problem common to Matamata hobbyists: our turtle was getting sick from the goldfish and refused to eat them.  Instead of eating them, he destroyed the fish, stinking up his tank quite nicely.  It was time for a trip to the vet. 

The biggest container available for us to transport this large turtle was a very wide, very long cooler used for Summer Camp.  After being poked and prodded, the veterinarian suggested we change his diet.  No more goldfish!  He is now on a minnow diet, straight from Lake Conroe (Thanks, Randi!).  Now he is doing great, especially since we quit poking him with needles and regularly removing him for a weigh-in on a baby scale.  He will eagerly eat up to 12 dozen minnows in one week! Phew!!


Matamata slowly heading
back to his sleeping corner of the
tank to rest until the next evening.

Many patrons (and museum staff) continuously ask “Is it alive?”  The Matamata is both a sit-and-wait predator and nocturnal so he doesn’t move around much when visitors come to see him during regular hours. 

I tell them to watch his eyes.  Oftentimes, you can see him blink.  Occasionally, you may even see him take a breath.  If you were to visit at night or very early in the morning, you might catch him hunting.  Our turtle will walk gracefully around his enclosure to go catch the fish schooling up on the other side of the tank.

It is really great seeing him go from quiet, hidden bump on a log to voracious hunter – whipping his neck around so fast that the fish never even saw it coming!  As if his body weren’t enough camouflage, he somehow manges to get rocks on top of his shell. 

He also uproots all of the fake plants in the enclosure, but that, I’m sure, is because his shell snags on them as he walks around, not because he’s redecorating.  He is a very interesting turtle and is a great addition to our live collection.


Smile for the camera!

Authored By Frances Zollinger

As a museum naturalist, Frances teaches wildlife classes, presents hands-on wildlife outreach programs, teaches summer camp, and helps care for the live animal collection.

3 responses to “Critter Cameo – Mysterious Matamata”

  1. Claire says:

    I love visiting the matamata at HMNS. He has such a wonderful smile. Thanks for telling us about him.

  2. Jacque says:

    I love this story about the Matamata. He seems interesting and enjoyable to watch. I look forward to your next critter. Love your sis, J

  3. Louise says:

    This is a great story. I can’t wait to read the next one. All you need now is a video of him eating!!

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