Previously, it was thought that the genus Chelus had only one species; now, scientists need to reassess the conservation status of these reptiles.
Based on genetic analysis, an international team of scientists was able to identify a new species of Mata-Mata turtle: Chelus orinocensis. The discovery was reported on Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.
Mata-Mata turtles live in the fresh waters of South America, in the basins of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers. They are known for their different appearance, which allows them to camouflage themselves in the mud at the bottom of rivers to kill their prey with surprise attacks.
Until then, scientists believed that the genus Chelus contained only one species: Chelus fimbriata. However, some studies had pointed out that turtles on the Orinoco River and their relatives on the Amazon River looked different. “Based on this observation, we decided to take a closer look at these animals’ genetic makeup,” explains Dr. Uwe Fritz, professor at the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden, Germany, in a statement.
When studying 75 samples of DNA, the scientists realized that, in fact, there are two species of Mata-Mata turtles, and they are quite different both in terms of genetics and morphology. While Chelus orinocensis lives in the Orinoco and Rio Negro river basins, Chelus fibriata inhabits only the Amazon Basin and the Mahury River drainage.
The researchers believe that the biological differentiation of the two turtles occurred about 13 million years ago, in the Miocene period. They also point out that, with the new discovery, it is necessary to reassess the conservation status of these turtles.
“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. 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,” adds Mario Vargas-Ramírez, a professor at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá