Review of the fossil matamata turtles: earliest well-dated record and hypotheses on the origin of their present geographical distribution

Abstract

The matamata (Chelus fimbriatus) is a highly aquatic chelid turtle known exclusively from northern South America. Due to its extremely modified morphology, it is well circumscribed among living taxa, but that is not the case of the two extinct species ascribed to the taxon, Chelus colombianus and Chelus lewisi. These were originally described for the Miocene of Colombia and Venezuela, respectively, and are known mostly from post-cranial material. Few traits have been considered diagnostic for these fossil taxa, and their shared geographic and temporal distributions raise doubts about their distinctiveness. Here, we describe new turtle remains from the early Miocene Castillo Formation, at Cerro la Cruz, northwestern Venezuela, assigning them to C. colombianus. We also review the taxonomy and diagnostic features of the fossil species of Chelus, comparing them with the variation recognized within C. fimbriatus. All alleged differences between the fossil Chelus species were found in our sample of the extant species, and may represent intraspecific variation of a single fossil species. Further, we reviewed the fossil record of Chelus spp. and proposed a paleobiogeographic hypothesis to explain its present geographic range.

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Acknowledgments

The authors gratefully acknowledge Evangelos Vlachos for the discussions about nomenclature, the editor-in-chief of The Science of Nature Sven Thatje, and the reviewers (W.G. Joyce, M. Rabi, and two anonymous) for their insightful comments on the first version of the manuscript. This research was supported by Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) scholarships to GSF (2012/11604-1; 2014/25379-5) and research funding to MCL (2014/03825-3) and by Venezuelan Ministry of University Education, Science, and Technology (MEUCT) research funding IVIC-1096 and PEII2012-456 to ADR and AS.

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Correspondence to Gabriel S. Ferreira.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Ferreira, G.S., Rincón, A.D., Solórzano, A. et al. Review of the fossil matamata turtles: earliest well-dated record and hypotheses on the origin of their present geographical distribution. Sci Nat 103, 28 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-016-1355-2

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Keywords

  • Chelus
  • Chelidae
  • Miocene
  • Venezuela
  • Biogeography