The mata-mata is an interesting-looking freshwater turtle endemic to South America. It can specifically be found in the Amazon and Orinoco basins.
While not as popular as several other freshwater turtles, such as red-eared sliders, this turtle is fancied by many turtle enthusiasts for its unique appearance and interesting mannerisms.
This turtle looks like it is part-plant. The head and neck resemble leaves and the carapace resembles bark. This appearance allows the mata-mata to perfectly blend into its native habitat. As a carnivorous species, this camouflage comes in handy when it needs to feed. In captivity, you need to feed them almost exclusively on fish.
Mata-mata Facts and Information
- Experience Level: Intermediate
- Family: Chelidae
- Scientific Name: Chelus fimbriata
- Other Names: Matamata, mata-mata, mata mata
- Average Adult Size: 11 to 17 inches (28 cm – 43 cm)
- Adult Weight: 33 lbs (15 kg)
- Diet: Carnivorous, feeds mostly on fish
- Average Lifespan: 15-30 years
- Average Price Range: $250.00 – $400.00
The mata-mata turtle may not be the largest turtle out there but it does get quite really big. Adults can reach lengths of 11 inches to 17 inches. As you can see, this is large. There have been species that have been recorded reaching lengths of 18 inches (45 cm).
The species can reach weights of 33 lb (15 kg). This size means they are quite a handful to feed. They also need a large enclosure to be comfortable.
Both males and females of the species are about the same length although males have more concave plastrons and longer tails than females have.
Natural Habitat & Geographical Range
This South American turtle is native to the Amazon and Orinoco basins. This is a tropical turtle. Here, specimens prefer to live in slow-moving shallow, and murky waters. These include rivers, swamps, marshes, and blackwater streams.
The mata-mata doesn’t even mind brackish waters as they are found in the brackish waters of the lower Amazon basins.
The mata-mata is aquatic and not semi-aquatic. In their native habitat, they rarely ever leave their aquatic habitats. They hardly ever bask and are mostly under water. Females do come to land to lay eggs.
The weak-limbed mata-mata prefers to stay at the bottom of the water bodies they inhabit. They hardly ever swim and prefer to prowl the muddy bottoms.
In all, you can say this species lives in freshwater bodies in the tropics.
As with many species found in the Amazon, little is known about the lifespan of the mata-mata in the wild. However, in captivity, these turtles have been known to live up to 15 years. But there are websites that claim the matamata can live to over 30 years and even up to 75 years.
The mata-mata is a carnivorous turtle and mostly eats fish and other aquatic creatures such as aquatic worms and insects. Since this turtle has weak jaws, it prefers to swallow its prey whole. This species prefers to remain still when hunting for food. The camouflaged appearance is crucial to its hunting, so are the algae that grow on its shell.
Very little is known about the predators of the species. However, potential predators find mata-mata hard to locate and identify because of their cryptic nature which is helped by the mata-mata’s camouflaged appearance.
When kept as pets, the matamata turtle needs to be protected from other domestic pets like cats and dogs. These protective measures include a secure enclosure and supervision.
The mata-mata lay their eggs from October to December. Breeding also happens within the same time period. The mata-mata breeds once a year. They usually lay their eggs in the upper Amazon. The mata-mata lay eggs in open sandy places near the edge of forests.
The mata-mata usually lay a clutch of 12 to 28 eggs. The eggs generally incubate for about 200 days and include. The eggs are spherical and need temperatures of 83 F to 84 F (28 to 29 degrees Celsius).
Matamata Turtle Care Guide
The mata-mata is a large turtle and as such usually require a large enclosure. For an adult mata-mata turtle, you may need to build a pond or use a very large tank, if you can’t afford a pond. Subadults and juveniles can live in smaller tanks. We will tackle the exact care requirement of this turtle in the sections below.
The most difficult aspect of caring for the mata-mata is the tank setup, which also depends on what type of turtle setup you choose. For this we will assume it is going to be an indoors aquarium style.
Once you have the enclosure up and running, care is simple. mata-mata turtles can grow to enormous sizes for a freshwater turtle.
This species can easily reach lengths of 16 inches and more. These huge adults require big enclosures.
Let’s consider housing. mata-mata starts out small, just like any turtle. As juveniles and hatchlings, these turtles can be housed in a 60-gallon tank. However, they will outgrow this fairly quickly. As adults, these turtles need 80-gallon to 150-gallon tanks.
A rule of thumb to use is 10 to 15 gallons of water capacity for each inch of the turtle. Eventually, when the turtle reaches adult size, they will need about 150 to 200 gallons of water if you choose to use a tank.
For adults, the water depth should be about 8 to 10 inches and a length and width of at least 4 feet respectively. For younglings, a water depth of about 4 inches should be sufficient. The mata-mata is a bad swimmer.
I recommend building a pond.
The acidity of the water is important. The mata-mata prefers water with pH levels of 5-6. This is acidic. Sphagnum moss can be used to increase the acidity of the water in the enclosure.
You can also use baking soda which is also known to increase the acidity of aquariums. A teaspoon per every 5 gallons can slightly increase the acidity of the water.
I recommend having an aquarium test kit close by.
In addition to this, you need to keep chlorine, chloramines, and other harmful chemicals in check. Natural Rapport Aquarium Water Conditioner is an excellent way to do this.
You need a large and powerful filter for these reptiles. Turtles are much messier than fish. As such, the filter needs to be marked for twice the water capacity of the turtle’s size. This ensures that the tank is clean.
Regardless of filtration used, the water needs to be changed regularly. Change about a third of the water in the tank, every week.
There are several options on the market. This Polar Aurora External Canister is excellent for a 100-gallon tank. Have a look at our turtle tank filter guide for more on how to choose the right one.
External canisters are preferable as the species is a destructive one and can wreak havoc on internal canisters.
For an outdoor or indoor pond, the TetraPond Submersible Flat Box Filter is an excellent filter. This filter is great for any pond with a water capacity of 500 gallons or less. This is a filter box and as such needs to be fitted with a pump such as the VIVOSUN Submersible Pump.
mata-mata like slow moving water as such falling water from a waterfall feature or other water features needs to be broken by a rock or wood so the falling water doesn’t disrupt the water already in the tank. The flow and movement of water in the tank needs to be slow and steady.
The mata-mata is a tropical sp[ecies and requires high temperatures. Water temperature should be in the 80s to 90s. If you live in a temperate zone, maintaining such high temperatures in an outdoor pond all year round is simply impossible. The solution here is to house the turtles indoors.
Heating can be expensive but it is a must for the mata-mata. See our heater guide for more.
The high temperatures of this enclosure need to be 95 F or higher. The low temperatures of the enclosure should be around the low 80s (80 – 83 F).
The water temperatures should be around 82 F all year. This ensures that the temperatures match those that are found with the chelonian’s native habitats.
To maintain the right temperatures, you need a thermometer. An infrared thermometer allows you to measure temperatures without contact. The Etekcity Lasergrip Digital Infrared Thermometer is a good choice. Having a thermostat (such as Inkbird Digital Temperature Controller) can help keep the temperatures in check.
This is essential to the health and growth of the matamata turtle. Lack of proper lighting can seriously stress the turtle. Additionally, it can also lead to improper growth and even metabolic bone disease.
First, you need a UVB light bulb and a heat lamp. There are lamps that provide both UVA/UVB light as well as heating.
An example of such a lamp is the Zoo Med mercury vapor bulb. This bulb provides the needed warmth and UV radiation. However, if you use an incandescent bulb for lighting, the bulb needs to go off during the evenings and nights.
Since UV emissions wane over time, UV lamps need to be replaced frequently, usually once every half a year. You can test the potency of the UV lamp using a UV meter or a simple UVB lamp tester card. I recommend getting a couple of tester cards such as the ReptiZoo UV Sensor.
An good UV bulb is the ZooMed Reptisun. This produces exceptional levels of UVB radiation.
For more about UVB bulbs see our best UVB bulbs for turtles guide. It explains more about the types, percentages, and why you need them. I highly recommend reading it before buying anything.
Whichever UVB lamp you choose, make sure it is one that can penetrate the water. mata-mata spend all their time underwater. As such, a weak UVB lamp won’t provide the turtles with adequate exposure levels.
The UV lights need to go off during the evening and night. This is to simulate the day-night cycle. This cycle is extremely important. Keeping the lights on during the night can be very stressful for the turtle.
It is important to install heat lamps in the turtle’s enclosure. As a tropical turtle, a high temperature is needed even though the mata-mata doesn’t bask much, you still need to install a heat lamp.
A heat lamp over a basking spot is also important. The heat lamp needs to produce temperatures in the upper 90s (degrees Fahrenheit).
If you don’t want to get a bulb, a ceramic heat emitter is also an option. It’s like a light bulb but instead of light, it produces heat.
The species requires a sandy substrate. This is because the species needs a soft bottom. The turtle prefers to walk along the bottom of its tank.
A sandy substrate protects the turtle’s plastron from injury while providing the necessary traction. A gravel (smooth peebles) mix should also provide the needed traction. A good option is Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand.
The chelonian doesn’t bask. They are outright aquatic. Regardless, it is a good idea to have a dry part of the enclosure.
There are several options to choose from but for large turtles, it may be better to build one yourself. That is if you have a turtle tank.
For indoor and outdoor ponds, you can have basking platforms (islands) in the pond.
Recommended Basic Products
Here we have some basic products you need to get started. As you get better acquainted with caring for this turtle, you can include more products or remove some of these products. Also, these aren’t strictly the only products to use. You can also find alternatives. This serves as more of a guide.
(Since the products here are affiliate links, we do get commissions on purchase. This commission goes a long way in maintaining the site and bringing you high quality information.)
- Tank Size: 60 to 200-gallon tank (depending on size)
- Water Conditioner: Natural Rapport Aquarium Water Conditioner
- Water Heater: Orlushy Submersible Aquarium Heater
- Thermometer: Etekcity Lasergrip Digital Infrared Thermometer
- Heat and UVB/UVA Lamp: Zoo Med Power Sun mercury vapor bulb
- UV Only Bulb: ZooMed Reptisun
- UV Tester Cards: ReptiZoo UV Sensor
- Heat Lamp: Wuhostam ceramic heat lamp
- Temperature Controller (Thermostat): Inkbird Digital Temperature Controller
- Filtration: Polar Aurora External Canister (for a 100-gallon tank) or TetraPond Submersible Flat Box Filter connected to a VIVOSUN Submersible Pump (for a pond)
- Substrate: Sphagnum moss (to increase water acidity) and Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand
Feeding the Mata-mata
The species is carnivorous and only feeds on fish and other small animals. Commercial turtle diets won’t work well here.
The live prey to feed this turtle include smelt, sunfish, earthworms, guppies, Gambusia, shiners (minnows), mollies, platies, and goldfish. They can also offer them mussels.
The species actually eats fish by sucking in the fish along with water just like a vacuum. The water is then drained out and the fish swallows whole. As mentioned earlier, the turtle is camouflaged while hunting. The species finds it difficult to feed if there are just 2-4 fish.
The reason why you should feed them fish is that bones are a great source of calcium. Adding a Dr. Turtle Slow Release Calcium Block to the water can help increase the amount of calcium the turtle ingest.
Breeding and Availability
There is little on captive breeding of the species although they have been successfully bred. However in recent years, a large portion of captive species on the market are captive bred.
Hatchlings and juveniles are sensitive to captive conditions. As mentioned earlier, the water needs to be slightly acidic with a pH level of 5 to 6. The water also needs to be warm (around 83 F). Lastly, the water needs a lot of tannins.
Mata-mata turtles are quite difficult and expensive to obtain. Thanks to their unique look, demand for this turtle is quite decent.
When available the mata-mata turtle usually goes for $250.00 to $400.00. The oprices can be as low as $220 or as high as $650.
Water Quality – Most of the health problems that affect the mata-mata turtle is down to poor water quality. First the water needs to be properly filtered at all times. The water in the tank also needs to be changed regularly. Also, the water needs to be slightly acidic.
This is a huge problem for some turtle owners as the water in the tanks tends to havehighpH levels. Also, imported mata-mata turtle may have serious injuries on their skins and feet. However, a trip to a herp vet as well as maintaining a clean tank should heal the turtle right up.
Parasites – The mata-mata turtle’s attachment to live prey means they are difficult to deparasitize. However, a dewormer such as Panacur can be injected into a fish and then fed to the turtle. Wiggling the fish in front of the turtle stimulates the turtle and the mata-mata turtle is likely to devour it. (Learn more about turtle parasites)
Chelus fimbriatus has an IUCN red list status of Least Concern (or not listed) as of IUCN 2007 Red List. This means that their numbers are stable and that they are abundant in their natural habitat and geographical range. This may however change in the future because of the rapid destruction of the Amazon.
Matamata Turtle FAQ’s
How long do mamamata turtles live?
The exact lifespan of the mata-mata turtle is unknown as wild populations haven’t been studied much. With captive turtles, little is still known about the age of captive mata-mata turtle. According to Animal Diversity Web, the mata-mata turtle has a captive lifespan of 15 years. However, these turtles have been known to live to over 30 years.
Are Mata-mata turtles good pets?
The mata-mata turtle is a solitary creature. They don’t move much and prefer to be left alone. As long as the tank setup is good, mata-matas are quite easy to care for. Their unique appearance also makes them desirable chelonians to keep. In all, the mata-mata turtle is a good pet to have.
Where is the mata-mata turtle found?
In the wild, the mata-mata turtle can be found in the Amazon and Orinoco basins. In captivity, they are rarer. Since they are generally imported, they can be found on websites that trade in exotic turtles. They have also been captive bred successfully in recent years. These turtles are rare and tend not to stay on the market for long.
We only recommend adopting, or buying from captive breeders.
What eats the matamata turtle?
The matamata turtle is carnivorous and generally eat small fish. Some foods it accept include smelt, sunfish, earthworms, guppies, Gambusia, shiners (minnows), mollies, platies, and goldfish.
How big do matamata turtles get?
The mata-mata turtle is a large turtle. It can grow to lengths of 18 inches (45 cm), and weights of 33 kg (33 lb). As you can see these are quite massive for a freshwater turtle species.
Are mata-mata turtles dangerous?
These turtles aren’t dangerous to humans or any mammalian or reptilian house pet. They are poor swimmers, and have weak limbs and jaws. They can’t bit or harm humans. They hunt by swallowing small fish whole.
How many eggs does the female mata-mata lay?
Gravid females lay about 12 to 28 spherical eggs that are 3.5 cm in diameter in a single clutch. They lay eggs once a year from October to the end of the year.
The mata-mata is definitely among the most bizarre-looking reptiles on earth. This turtle resembles plant debris. Without close inspection, you can easily mistake a specimen of the species for debris in an aquarium. This camouflage helps the mata-mata hunt for its food.
As a carnivorous turtle, mata-mata feeds almost exclusively on fish. In captivity, these chelonians accept live fish such as guppies, minnows, mollies, platies, and goldfish.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that caring for the mata-mata is difficult. However, this is a demanding species. They require a large enclosure to thrive as they can grow to be very large.
If you can provide them with the needed space, then the rest shouldn’t be tough.
If you have any questions and suggestions, kindly leave a comment.
Myrna van Heumen
Friday 20th of May 2022
Thank you for the information. We have a 0roblem with our mata's. Habitat is perfect. Spacious, height is like recommended, ph and other values are perfect. Since three weeks one is not eating. We thought she might be having eggs. But now they have damaged both their noses so I worry they have been fighting. What can it be?
Tuesday 7th of May 2019
My pet name is black
Tuesday 8th of January 2019
hey cool site. learned a lot.