By the year 2020, you might assume that we have already discovered every animal that exists in our world. You may be surprised to know that scientists are constantly finding and learning about new animal species- in 2019 scientists discovered 71 new species, and in 2018 scientists described 229 new species of plants and animals [1,2].
A New Turtle is Discovered
Scientists have recently added a new turtle to the list.
Uwe Fritz from Germany, along with an international team, have discovered a new species of matamata turtle. This turtle comes from the genus Chelus, which scientists assumed only contained one species. Through genetic analysis, however, they have determined that there is, in fact, a second Chelus species .
The Matamata Turtle
The matamata turtle is very different in appearance than many other turtle species. It has a large, rough, and knobby shell, and is marked by three ridges that run from the front to the back of the shell.
The animal’s neck is wide and flat and is covered in warts and ridges. Its head is large, flat, and triangle-shaped, with a long tubular snout. The snout is used as a snorkel, to allow for minimal movement under the water.
The turtle’s shape and color help to camouflage it in the murky waters in which it lives, making it harder for it to be seen both by predators and prey .
“Although these turtles are widely known due to their bizarre looks and their unusual feeding behavior, surprisingly little is known about their variability and genetics,” explains Professor Dr. Uwe Fritz. “Until now, we assumed that there is only one species of this armored reptile that ranges widely across South America.” 
According to Fritz, there have been several studies that have pointed out differences between turtles found in the Orinoco River, compared to those in the Amazon River. Based on that observation, the team decided to take a closer look at the animals’ genetics to determine whether or not they were truly two different species.
They used 75 DNA samples to prove that the turtles in the different locations were, in fact, well-differentiated species. The two species are now known as Chelus orinocensis, which live in the Orinoco and Rio Negro basins, and Chelus fimbriata, which lives exclusively in the Amazon .
The study concluded that thirteen million years ago, the Amazon-Orinoco Basin began to split. This caused the matamata turtle, along with several other aquatic species, to be separated spatially, which gradually caused them to diverge genetically as well .
The matamata turtle’s largest threat is collection for the illegal international pet trade, and thousands of these turtles are confiscated by authorities every year. The export of these turtles has been banned in Columbia, Venezuela, and Brasil, however stronger regulations on international trade would greatly benefit their population .
“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,” explained the study’s lead author, Professor Mario Vargas-Ramírez .
For this reason, the matamata’s conservation status will have to be reassessed. The best way you can help this turtle is by choosing your pets wisely. Exotic animals often require special care and live for a long time, so they don’t make great pets. Tropical animals are often victims of the illegal pet trade, and by purchasing one of these animals you are supporting that industry .
Sharing this story, along with those of other exotic animals, can help raise awareness for them and help protect their populations.
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