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MEET THE ZOO: The Matamata Turtle

Make sure to take a close look, for this turtle can blend in with its surroundings

Possibly one of the strangest looking freshwater turtles you’ll ever see is living at the Prospect Park Zoo.  Many visitors miss seeing this unique animal, distracted by the beautiful snakes living in the same exhibit.

The matamata turtle is native to the Amazon and Orinoco River basins in South America. Prospect Park Zoo’s matamata shares its exhibit with a pair of brilliantly colored emerald tree boas, also native to the South American river areas. While these pretty snakes first attract the eye, visitors should then look underwater to observe the turtle blending in beautifully with the rocky riverbed.

With its spiky brown and black carapace (the top of the shell), the matamata looks like a pile of rocks and leaves, which is not surprising when you learn that its habitat is often slow moving streams and stagnant small bodies of water. It tends to stay in shallow areas where it is easy to reach up and catch a breath of air before resuming life underwater.

PPZ’s matamata is a large specimen, around 15 inches in diameter (matamatas can reach around 18 inches). One of its distinguishing characteristics is its long, flat neck and flat triangular-shaped head, which features a distinctive tubular snout. The snout functions much like a snorkel to help it breath while submerged.

Visitors who catch the turtle at the moment it decides to take a breath can observe the long neck stretch up and the very tip of the nose touch the surface of the water. The snout can be observed barely breaking the surface when viewed from the side of the water line. Not quite a minute later, the turtle withdraws its head and resumes its sedentary life submerged. It’s a great opportunity to closely observe the strange looking head and neck in action.

The Wildlife Conservation Society conducts conservation work throughout Latin America to protect the home of the matamata and countless other species. From Mexico to Argentina, WCS’s Latin America and Caribbean program uses a landscape-scale approach to protect the habitats of the region’s penguins, pumas, monkeys, guanacos and other iconic wildlife.

WCS conservationists work on the ground to protect Latin America’s most ecologically intact wild places, including the rugged coastlines of the Southern Cone, the rainforests of the Amazon basin and grasslands of the Andean steppe. Encompassing productive fisheries, biological corridors, migratory flyways, carbon sinks, sustainable development reserves and more. These landscapes are not only vital to Latin America’s biodiversity but to its people and economies as well.

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