If you remember early YouTube, you’re likely familiar with the kid dressed like a zombie at a local fair who uttered the iconic phrase, “I like turtles.” Honestly, what’s not to like? Turtles can hide inside their beautiful shells, sport surprisingly long necks, and are gentle creatures.
Herpetologists dedicate their lives to studying these magnificent reptiles and continue to find surprising specimens. Like the mata mata. A rare type of turtle that are both creepy and extremely cute. Recently, scientists made an exciting new discovery about the mata mata that would effect the species’ future.
This is the mata mata turtle. Take it all in. Their dappled brown and green shells provide excellent camouflage against the algae-covered rocks that dot the riverbeds where they spend their lives. You can see these unique creatures in swampy northern South America, where they’re entrancing herpetologists.
This species is mysterious. “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,” Professor Uwe Fritz of the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden said.
The specimens were so unique, herpetologists thought they were the living member of the genus Chelus. They were about to discover something incredible — the mata mata was no longer a one-of-a-kind animal; it’s now two-of-a-kind.
When researchers took a closer took at the mata mata, they noticed that turtles looked different in the Orinoco River compared to the ones living it up in the Amazon Basin. It seemed impossible to explain.
A group of herpetologists took genetic samples from 75 mata matas and realized that there were two distinct species: Chelus orinocensis, in Orinoco, and Chelus fimbriata, in the Amazon basin.
Benjamin Tapley, curator of reptiles and amphibians at Zoological Society of London, explained that scientists have noticed physical divergences between the two mata matas since the 1960s, but they weren’t able to confirm these until recently.
Zoological Society of London
This isn’t a new development either — one species evolved into two 12.7 million years ago in the Miocene era. Fun fact: this split happened when saber-toothed tigers were still roaming the planet.
Wise Wanderer / YouTube
During the Miocene epoch, the Amazon-Orinoco Basin diverged into two separate areas. Species like the mata mata were separated into two groups and over the years, became distinct species.
Turtles on the Orinoco side (C. orinocensis) are lighter and have rounded shells, while Amazon turtles (C. fimbriata) are darker with rectangular shells. Once you know what to look for, the two are fairly distinguishable.
Turtles and Tortoises Rescue and Rehabilitation Center
These findings can help with the mata mata conservation efforts. Though these turtles aren’t classified as endangered, they are extremely popular in the exotic pet world. Because they are now two species, there are not as many turtles as previously thought.
Each year, officials confiscate thousands of these beautifully, odd creatures from black market animal traders. If you’re familiar with the troubling tale of Joe Exotic and his terrible zoo, you’ll know how far-reaching this problem is.
Experts aren’t sure how many turtles are being illegally traded, but the turtles can be found through the U.S. and even in Europe. Though they aren’t currently threatened, it’s time to reassess how many of each species remains in the wild.
Joachim S. Müller, Flickr
The mata mata is only one of the many interesting species of turtles researchers have discovered over the years. Some of their other big discoveries motivated them to look further into these instantly recognizable reptiles.
The African helmeted turtle is a happy-looking guy! Like the mata mata, this cutie has a permanent smile. Don’t be fooled by this expression — these turtles can snag large prey from above water and drag them into the depths to drown and eat them.
Another interesting turtle is the red-bellied short-necked turtle. The best part about this turtle is that it has an incredibly descriptive name, so you know exactly what it looks like even if you haven’t personally seen it.
Todd Stailey/Tennessee Aquarium
The Roti Island snake-necked turtle scares me. It’s the opposite of the previous turtle — it has a neck that looks far too long for its small body. They are critically endangered, so if you see one of these critters, just leave it alone.
Get ready for a big boy. The Cantor’s giant softshell turtle can grow more than six feet long. This massive chonk hides in riverbeds, only moving to hunt prey or to take one of its two daily breaths.
The Indian flapshell turtle is known for its distinctive folds around its shell. Unlike many of the other turtles on this list, this one can tolerate spending time outside of streams. Experts believe its flaps can help hold in moisture.
Stop what you’re doing and look at the big-headed turtle. This little guy is disproportioned in the best way. Though they can’t retract their heads into their shells for protection, they have strong jaws to bite any potential predators.
If you’re a turtle lover and want to support your scaly friends, check out the Turtle Conservancy (TC). Unfortunately, half of all turtle species are endangered, and the TC is working to help protect these beautiful creatures.
They say that true love is hard to find, but a love that lasts is the most elusive of all. Some search their whole lives for the one that completes them, but Galápagos turtles Bibi and Poldi never had to.
Fine Art America
Since birth, Bibi and Poldi had spent nearly every waking moment together; whether they were eating, sleeping, or just lounging in the sun, the turtles were inseparable. And for tortoises that were born way back in 1897, that’s one heck of a long time.
The couple spent most of their early life in a zoo in Switzerland, and it was here that the pair likely developed a physical relationship. Years came and went, and by the 1970s, the two loveturtles had found a forever home at the Reptilienzoo Happ in Austria.
Bibi and Poldi had been together ever since, serving as a true picture of love for the rest of the reptilian world. But in November 2011, on a seemingly normal day, everything changed for the turtle couple.
Mother Nature Network
As one of the zookeepers approached the reptile enclosure, they noticed that the two turtles were acting a bit… off. Then, without warning, Bibi lashed out and bit a chunk out of Poldi’s shell!
While turtles don’t have teeth, their jaws are incredibly sharp; if Bibi attacked Poldi again, there was a good chance she could maim – or even kill – her partner. And so, for the first time in 115 years, the turtle couple was forced to separate.
The zoo community wondered what could’ve provoked the hundred-year-old reptile to turn on her mate. Zoo director Helga Happ seemed to take the news the hardest, as her relationship with her husband, zoo founder Friedrich Happ, had mirrored the turtles’.
Helga had come to work at the Austrian zoo right around the time that Bibi and Poldi had arrived, and as the love between the turtles grew so did the love between she and Friedrich. After all: what’s more romantic than a pair of lovestruck tortoises?
Sadly, Friedrich passed away in 2000, but today the couple’s son, daughter, and granddaughter all work at the zoo. With so much history between Helga and the turtles, it’s no surprise that the Happs considered Bibi and Poldi part of the family, too.
For this reason, the Happs were determined to reunite the once-happy turtle couple. In their minds, if Bibi and Poldi could survive two World Wars and the turn of the millennium, then they could absolutely survive a little lovers’ quarrel.
The Happs’ first plan of attack was to move Poldi to his own enclosure. Then, after the dust had settled, they’d reintroduce the pair over a nice dinner of fresh veggies. “We were hoping that they would make up during their first spring outing,” Helga said.
That, of course, didn’t work, nor did any of the bonding games they tried or tomato dinners they fixed for the couple. “They tolerate each other’s presence just as long as it’s not too cold, not too hot, and there’s plenty of food,” Helga’s son Johannes said.
The zoo even tried counseling for the turtles, with one outside expert suggesting that Bibi may have suffered some sort of psychological breakdown. But when the check-up results came back, the tortoise was as sound of mind as she’d ever been.
Eventually, the Happs introduced a life-size plastic turtle into the mix. They hoped that this new “low-risk” presence would serve to comfort the lonely Poldi while also diffusing some of Bibi’s aggressive tendencies.
This, too, proved to be a lost cause, as Poldi caught on to the plan after just a few days while Bibi completely ignored the fake turtle from the get go. “We get the feeling they can’t stand the sight of each other anymore,” Helga told the Austrian Times.
Word of the turtle breakup soon spread beyond the Reptilienzoo Happ, and the media was quick to despair. In an article about the split, Erica Ho of Time magazine put it bluntly: “If [they] can’t make it work, what hope do the rest of us have?”
Even today – more than seven years after Bibi and Poldi called it quits – the breakup still affects the lives of Helga Happ and her family. “Bibi [still] does not want to have anything to do with Poldi,” says Helga.
The Happs have since stopped trying to reconcile the two turtles, choosing instead to build a second house so that Bibi and Poldi can have their space. Each house also comes complete with its own outdoor facilities and even separate swimming ponds.
But even so, Helga and her family still hold onto the hope that the pair may one day reunite. That’s why when constructing the small fence between the two enclosures, the Happs installed a tiny window to allow Bibi and Poldi an occasional glimpse of one another.
Unfortunately, Bibi hasn’t taken to the window too well, and every time she spots Poldi on the other side “she hisses like a snake.” Despite Helga’s efforts, one thing seems crystal clear: “[Bibi] does not want to live with [Poldi].”
Le Roux’s Travels
Bibi and Poldi were fortunate enough (at least at first) to have had a mate in one another practically from birth, but other animals usually aren’t so lucky. In fact, while these two turtles were struggling to coexist, a tiny, similarly scaled amphibian was searching desperately to find his one true love.
Once upon a time, in the deep dark corners of the Bolivian rainforest, lived a Sehuencas water frog with a wide brown body, big green eyes, and an orange chest holding an empty heart. He was alone. He had been for a very, very long time.
There, from the tropical freshwater marsh, he was captured by scientists who had never laid eyes on one of his kind before. To further study him, they brought the fat-bellied frog back to their labs.
Ever since that day, the frog had been living at the Cochabamba Natural History Museum where he was given the name “Romeo.” The question for the lonely frog was this: would he find his one true love? Or would “love be a smoke made with the fume of sighs?”
See, at first, researchers and frog experts assumed that Romeo was the very last Sehuencas water frog remaining on Earth. After all, his habitat has been greatly affected by deforestation and climate change…
But both the researchers and Romeo refused to give up hope. Their new goal for the next decade was to find him a Juliet. If the two got along, he would no longer be lonely, and if they really got along, they might be able to repopulate the Sehuencas species.
For the scientists, boosting the frog population was a beneficial goal in more ways than one: they’d save another species from extinction, further study these little guys, and restore balance in the delicate ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest.
Thus, the biologists got to work; they searched endlessly throughout the forest and even created a profile for Romeo on Match.com. Still, for an entire decade, “one” remained the loneliest number.
Zoologist Teresa Camacho then led a frog-search expedition in December of 2018. She and her team would stick their hands in creeks and feel for water frogs since the creatures can’t easily be spotted underwater.
“We were tired, wet and disappointed,” said Camacho, who believes that contaminated waterways on top of all the other habitat changes have driven the Sehuencas water frog close to extinction. “Then I said, ‘Let’s do one more creek.'”
Suddenly, Camacho and her team heard a tiny splash and noticed some movement in the water. They reached for the creature right away but alas: it was an entirely different species of frog.
However, not all hope was lost. That frog jumped away, leading the team to a tiny waterfall. There, underneath the stream of a little crashing wave, researchers saw a brown frog with big green eyes and an orange belly.
Unfortunately, this frog would not be Romeo’s partner in repopulating the species. While this little fella could’ve been great company to the museum loner, he was a male! Still, this meant there were more Sehuencas out there. There was hope to finding Romeo a Juliet.
The next day, the crew returned to the creek one more time and… bingo! They managed to catch four more frogs: two males and two females. While three of them were too young to reproduce, one female was exactly the right age. Now all they needed was some chemistry…
Although Romeo found no luck in online dating, this adult female could very well be the one. Could his life of isolation finally be over? It was a tough call because she had a completely opposite personality from Romeo’s!
“Romeo is really calm and relaxed and doesn’t move a whole lot,” Camacho Badini told BBC. Juliet, she said, was “really energetic, she swims a lot and she eats a lot and sometimes she tries to escape.”
On Valentine’s Day of 2019, the two love frogs would be set up on their very first “date” in the hopes of procreating and saving their entire species. No pressure, though, right?
If their personalities weren’t compatible, the looks could be all they needed. “She has beautiful eyes,” Alcide d’Orbigny Museum Director Ricardo Céspedes said about Juliet, who was quarantined until lab tests come back.
Scientists needed to make sure she was free of the dangerous chytrid fungus — known to have killed entire frog populations — before she met Romeo. Otherwise, she could’ve done much more harm than good!
Romeo was actually quite shy, didn’t swim much, and was “a little overweight” but that could change! “We’ll have to provide some sort of current to get him a little more exercise,” Camacho said.
If Romeo didn’t get kissed and turned into a prince, there were always a few other solutions: the biologists could attempt in-vitro-fertilization or rely on the younger frogs to breed when they were ready.
The Bolivian Museum of Natural History has previously succeeded in preserving the rare Titicaca frog, so if anyone is up to saving the Sehuencas, it’s these well-trained experts.
Now all there was left to do was wait for Valentine’s Day and see whether the Montague-Capulet romance would bloom. At least for now, Romeo no longer has to live in solitude, and there’s gonna be one less lonely frog.