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Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

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Scientific Classification

Class: Reptilia
Order: Testuidae
Family: Cheloniidae
Genus: Eretmochelys
Species: imbricata

Species Description

Small to medium-sized hard-shelled sea turtle

Carapace: Long and colorful

Mouth looks like a bird’s beak

Typical Adult:
Weight: 100-150 lb (45-70 kg)
Length: 25-35 in (65-90 cm)

Conservation

Status
Endangered throughout its range
Threats
  • Hunting
  • Interactions with fishing gear
  • Habitat destruction
  • Pollution
  • Climate change
  • Lack of information

Natural History

Range

Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans

Habitat

Open ocean (Pelagic)
Hard bottomed reefs
Small pocket beaches, with little or no sand.
Water depth 0-60 ft

Diet

Omnivore: mostly sponges, some invertebrates and algae

Life History

Reproduction - Seasonal

Sexual maturity: males when 27 inches long;
Sexual Maturity: females when 30 inches long

Breeding: April-November

Average clutch size: 130 eggs
Average clutches per season: 3-5
Renesting interval: 14-16 days
Range of nest incubation: 60-75 days

Lifespan

Unknown

  • In the Caribbean, an adult hawksbill eats an average of 1200 lbs (544 kg) of sponges a year!
  • Hawksbills are capable of nesting faster than any other species of sea turtles and can complete the entire process in less than 45 minutes.

Description

The hawksbill is small to medium-sized sea turtle species. The carapace is dark to golden brown, with streaks of orange, red and/or black. The plastron is yellow. The hatchlings are mostly brown.

Hawksbill turtles have several features that distinguish them from other species of sea turtle. They have two pairs of prefrontal scales on the top of the head. Each of the flippers has two claws. Some of the scutes on the carapace overlap each other. The side and back edges of the carapace are serrated. Most notably, the elongated mouth resembles a bird’s beak.

Young hawksbills have a heart-shaped carapace. As they age the carapace becomes elongated.

Distribution

Hawksbills can be found throughout the tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. They regularly occur in southern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico (especially Texas), in the Antilles and along Central America as far south as Brazil.

Like several other sea turtle species, the hawksbill is capable of migrating long distances between nesting beaches and foraging areas. For example, one female hawksbill traveled 1,160 miles from US Virgin islands to Nicaragua.

The most important nesting areas in the U.S. are in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Within the continental U.S., nesting occurs along the southeast coast of Florida and the Florida Keys. A few hawksbills have been reported nesting along the coasts of North Carolina and South Carolina.

Habitat

Hawksbill turtles use different habitats at different stages of their life.

Hatchlings and juveniles are found in the open ocean. They occupy floating mats of algae and drift lines of flotsam and jetsam in the Atlantic. The habitat of hawksbill hatchlings and juveniles in the Pacific is unknown.

When they are 8-10 inches long, these juveniles move to coastal areas where they can forage. These areas are hard-bottomed reef habitats containing sponges. It is here that they begin to feed below the surface on animals living in the coral reefs. They are usually found in water no deeper than sixty feet.

Hawksbills are also found around rocky outcrops and high energy shoals. They are also known to inhabit mangrove-fringed bays and estuaries, where coral reefs are absent.

Diet

Omnivore

As adults, hawksbills eat mostly sponges but will sometimes eat invertebrates and algae as well.

Life History

Once males leave their nesting beach, they spend the rest of their lives in the water. Females only come ashore to nest. The lifespan of these animals is unknown but thought to be around 30 years.

Breeding

With many reptiles, size is a more reliable indicator of sexual maturity than age. This is the case with sea turtles. Male hawksbills mature when they are about 27 inches (70 cm) long. Females mature at about 30 inches (80 cm). The specific ages at which wild turtles usually reach these lengths are unknown, but it is thought to be between three and four years of age. Sexually mature hawksbills migrate between feeding and nesting areas. Mating usually begins in shallow waters off-shore from the nesting beaches.

Nesting

Females return to the beaches where they were born (their natal beaches) to nest. Females only nest once every two to three years and only during a specific time of year. Nesting usually occurs between April and November. A female hawksbill generally lays 3-5 nests at 14-16 day intervals each season. The nests each contain an average of 130 eggs.

Female hawksbills usually nest at night high up on the beach under or in the beach/dune vegetation. They commonly nest on pocket beaches, with little or no sand. The nesting process can last as little as 45 minutes or as long as 3 hours. The females clear an area, dig an egg chamber, lay their eggs, fill in the chamber, disturb the area and crawl back to the sea. They leave behind a distinctive crawl pattern.

Incubation and Hatching

The eggs incubate for 60 to 75 days. It is thought that, like other sea turtles, sex determination is temperature dependent, known as TSD. However, there is not enough data to confirm this in this species.

Hatchlings usually emerge from the nest at night. Once on the surface, they quickly orient and move towards the ocean. They use moonlight and starlight reflected from the surface of the water as a guide.

Threats

Sea turtles face threats on nesting beaches, in their feeding grounds and in the open ocean. Habitat loss, harvest of eggs and turtles and accidental capture in fishing equipment are currently the greatest threats to this species.

Predators

Hawksbill turtles face different predators as they age.

Eggs and hatchlings are most vulnerable and may be eaten by a wide range of coastal predators, including crabs, large lizards, small mammals (e.g. raccoons, coatis, dogs, coyotes, genets, mongooses) and a variety of birds of prey and shorebirds.

Once in the ocean, young hawksbills still face predation from cephalopods, sharks and other large fish.

Adults face fewer threats but can still be attacked by larger marine predators. Females can be harassed by dogs, large to medium-sized predators, crabs, flies and people while nesting.

Human Impacts

Habitat loss. The most significant global threat for this species is loss of their coral reef habitat. Coral reefs are vulnerable to destruction and degradation caused by human activities. Humans can alter coral reefs either gradually or catastrophically.

In addition to direct harvest, increased human presence is a threat to hawksbills throughout the Pacific. In particular, increased recreational and commercial use of nesting beaches, beach camping and fires, litter and other trash, general harassment of turtles and loss of nesting habitat from human activities negatively impact hawksbills.

Commercial Fishing. Accidental capture in fishing gear is a serious ongoing cause of death that also negatively affects the population.

Hunting. Historically, commercial exploitation was the primary cause of the decline of hawksbill sea turtle populations. There remains a continuing demand for the hawksbill’s shell as well as other products, including leather, oil, perfume and cosmetics. Many countries in which these turtles can be found allow harvest. Hawksbills are also harvested for their eggs and meat.

Pollution:

Trash. Turtles eat a wide array of the 24,000 metric tons of floating trash dumped in the ocean each year. This includes such items as bags, sheets, pellets, balloons and abandoned fishing line. Sea turtles may mistake the floating plastic for jellyfish, a common food item. When turtles eat plastic, it causes many health concerns, including blocked intestines, malnutrition, suffocation, ulcers and starvation. Ingested plastics also release toxins that accumulate in the turtles tissues. These toxins lead to thinner eggshells, tissue damage and unusual behavior.

Artificial lighting. Artificial light impacts nesting females and hatchlings. Females appear to prefer nesting on beaches free of artificial lighting or shadowed. Hatchlings automatically move towards the ocean using reflected moonlight or starlight on the water as a guide. Artificial light is brighter and can confuse them so they navigate inland towards that light and away from the ocean. This results in dehydration and predation. Artificial lighting causes tens of thousands of hatchling deaths per year.

Climate Change. Changes in global temperatures can affect the turtles in many ways.

  • Since the sex of sea turtle hatchlings depends on the temperature at which the eggs were incubated, high sand temperatures may change sex ratios resulting in too few males to sustain the population.
  • As water levels rise, a number of good nesting beaches will be lost.
  • The areas where sea turtles feed may be dramatically altered by climate change.

Click here for more information on the impact of climate change on sea turtle populations.

Lack of Information

Our lack of knowledge about the population and life history of hawksbill sea turtles makes it very difficult to understand what this species needs to survive and thrive.

Conservation

All over the world sea turtles continue to decline. Their conservation and recovery requires international cooperation in order to address all of the threats to these species. The Hawksbill is considered to be endangered throughout its range.

In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) protect sea turtles. NOAA monitors the turtles while they are in the ocean and USFWS while they are on land. Federal and state agencies have developed regulations to eliminate or reduce threats to sea turtles. For example, NOAA works closely with the shrimp trawl fishing industry to develop turtle excluder devices (TEDs) and reduce the death of sea turtles accidentally caught in shrimp trawl gear. TEDs that are large enough to exclude even the largest sea turtles are now required in shrimp trawl nets. The USFWS, in partnership with other organizations, provides protection for sea turtles and their nests during the nesting season.

You can help too. In many places scientists, workers and volunteers help protect the turtles. During the nesting season, volunteers help locate and protect nests, relocate nests threatened by disturbance, or guide hatchlings to the ocean. Even after the eggs hatch, volunteers can assist scientists as they uncover and count eggs and hatchlings left in the nest.

There are many other ways we can help as well:

  • Limit our use of plastics
  • Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (see Womble’s Tale)
  • Use only turtle friendly products
  • Respect sea turtles beaches and nests
  • Support sea turtle research
  • Volunteer with a recommended sea turtle conservation organization
  • Support your local sea turtle conservation organizations

Ernst, C., J. Lovich, R. Barbour. 1994. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Sea Turtle Conservancy. Species Fact Sheet: Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Online). Accessed March 30, 2012.

Spotila, James R. (2004). Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to their Biology, Behavior, and Conservation. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press and Oakwood Arts. ISBN 0-8018-8007-6.

US Fish and WIldlife Service, North Florida Ecological Services, Loggerhead Turtle Fact Sheet.

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