The mata mata is a peculiar sedentary turtle with a long leaf-like head that hardly moves, snorkels for air, and vacuums up food.
Mata mata turtles are endemic to freshwater streams in South America, primarily found within the Amazon and Orinoco River Basins. This strange, bony reptile is the only remaining species of its genus.
Its most peculiar characteristic is a long, flattened head covered in tubercles and equipped with a pointed snout. Its inconspicuous brown color attributes to a similarity to stream-bottom leaf debris and the uncanny ability to camouflage itself from predators.
It’s head has many tubercles and flaps of skin which give the impression that this turtle is always enigmatically smiling:
Unlike most freshwater turtles, the mata mata lives a quiet, sedentary life, preferring to move as little as possible. They choose to take up residence in the bottoms of shallow stagnant pools, marshes, and slow-moving streams. Its selection of shallow water is attributed to its preference for keeping still. Instead of swimming to the surface, the mata mata is able to extend its long, leaf-like neck upwards to allow its pointed snout above the water in order to breathe, in essence, ‘snorkeling’.
An additional characteristic that makes the mata mata so unusual is its inability to tuck its head back into its shell. In actuality, its neck is longer than its vertebral shell, which makes the retracting motion impossible.
While turtles are generally remarked for their slow, sloth-like movements, the mata mata wins the award for laziest turtle of the reptile kingdom. These turtles do not even hunt for their food, but rather wait for food to come to them. The animal lies camouflaged in leafy stream bottoms with its neck stretched out, waiting for fish to pass by. When dinner arrives, the mata-mata merely opens its mouth and sucks in its prey using a naturally evolved low-pressure vacuum.
This strange, snorkeling animal is truly the epitome of evolutionary laziness — and certainly the weirdest turtle in the world.
Even weirder – check out an albino mata mata: