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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Specimen of the Week 344: The mata mata skeleton

By ucwehlc, on 25 May 2018

This week we are meeting one of the weirder-looking species at the Grant Museum, and that’s really saying something. In life it had a nose like a snorkel, a shell like tree bark and a neck longer than its body. Specimen of the week is…

Mata mata skeleton Chelus fimbriata LDUCZ X186

Mata mata skeleton Chelus fimbriata LDUCZ-X187


**The mata mata skeleton**

Kinda funny looking

The mata mata turtle lives in shallow, slow moving fresh water or marshes in South America where it feeds on fish, amphibians, invertebrates, small mammals and birds. It hunts by lying very still just under the surface, then opening its mouth very wide which produces a suction current to pull its prey in.

Mata mata turtle, image by Colleen

Mata mata turtle, image by Colleen CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This turtle has a huge head and a neck which is longer than the backbone inside its shell. The shell itself is ridged and lumpy, and the mata mata’s skin is covered in wrinkles, flaps and bumps. This makes it look like a piece of bark or a pile of leaves in the water. It also has a long thin nose like a snorkel so it can breathe while submerged. Mata matas are pretty big too, adults can weigh up to 15 kg.

Mata mata turtle, image by Joachim S. Muller

Mata mata turtle, image by Joachim S. Muller CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Mata matas are not currently considered to be at risk of extinction, but habitat loss and over-collection by the pet trade could threaten them in the future.

A Mata mata turtle at Memphis Zoo, image by Russ Glasson

A mata mata turtle at Memphis Zoo, image by Russ Glasson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What’s the mata with this specimen?

Our mata mata skeleton has had its plastron (the shell under the belly) removed so students can see the bones inside its shell. This makes it a very popular and useful specimen in student practical classes despite it being large, heavy and unstable with a detachable head. You may be able to guess where this story is going. On its final outing of 2017 I accidentally decapitated the mata mata and broke its jaw.

Eventually something like this will happen to everyone who works with natural history collections, specimens can be fragile and accidents happen. There is even a Twitter hashtag dedicated to learning from museum-based accidents. Check out #MuseumOops for unfortunate typos, accidental stabbings and at least one fire.

Fortunately the turtle was not too gravely injured, and with help from our conservator Emilia, I fixed it up by sticking the cracked bone back together with paraloid B72 conservation adhesive. This mata mata is a pretty old specimen and it has probably been on its wobbly mount for around 100 years. It is now first in line for our next remounting project, it will get a new, sturdier base so we can keep using it safely for teaching for the next 100 years.

Mata mata broken jaw, before and after

Mata mata broken jaw, before and after

You break it, you buy it

As this is the second jaw I have broken (the first was my own), it’s starting to become a habit and I felt I should make amends. But how? Reader, I adopted him. Now everyone who visits can see how sorry I am. You don’t have to break a specimen in order to adopt it (in fact we would prefer that you didn’t), but if you want to take one of our animals under your wing too you can do it here. Everyone who joins the friends of the Grant Museum supports the care and conservation of our specimens and can adopt a specimen of their own.

Hannah Cornish is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology



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