What Is a Hawksbill Turtle?

Elizabeth West

The hawksbill turtle, Eretmochelys imbricate, is an omnivorous marine turtle with a distinctive bird-like beak. It inhabits tropical and subtropical seas around the world, primarily in coral reef areas and shallow coastal waters. The hawksbill feeds mostly on sponges, algae, and other invertebrates. This sea turtle is endangered due to demand for its meat, eggs, and tortoiseshell, and is protected by several international agreements and habitat designations.

Several thousand hawksbill turtles live near the Great Barrier Reef.
Several thousand hawksbill turtles live near the Great Barrier Reef.

The western Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans as well as the Caribbean Sea are the main habitats of the hawksbill turtle. Shallow water no more than 65 feet deep (19.81 m) around coral reefs supports the growth of sponges, sea algae, and other invertebrates that make up the bulk of the turtle’s diet. A large population of nesting animals between 6,000 and 8,000 individuals can be found around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Turtles are common around Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the Gulf coast.

Seagulls are one of the primary predators for newborn hawksbill turtles.
Seagulls are one of the primary predators for newborn hawksbill turtles.

A hawksbill turtle grows to an average of 2.5 feet (76.2 cm) long and weighs 150 pounds (68 kg). It has a heart-shaped carapace, with patches of orange, yellow, and black. An elongated head and the beak shape of its mouth helps it dig out food in the bumpy nooks of the coral reef. Hawksbills typically mature at 27 inches (70 cm) for males and 30 inches (80 cm) for females, but the actual age this occurs is unknown.

The female hawksbill turtle returns to her natal beach every two to three years to nest, usually between July and October. She will lay between three and five nests per season, each containing around 140 eggs. The young hatch after 60 days and head for the water, dodging seagulls and other predators on their way. Juvenile hawksbills are only 1-2 inches (2.5-5.8 cm) long.

Although outlawed in many areas, demand for tortoiseshell is a highly lucrative, though illegal, trade. The hawksbill turtle has also been hunted for its meat and eggs. Loss of habitat due to the decimation of coral reefs and nesting beaches has created further decline. Sea turtles are also at risk of being caught in shrimp trawl gear, but turtle excluder devices (TEDs) have greatly reduced the number of animals accidentally killed in this manner.

Several international treaties contain provisions for the protection of the hawksbill turtle. The Inter-American Convention (IAC) for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles has 14 contract-holding countries dedicated to efforts preserving the species. In 1998, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries designated critical habitat around the Mona and Monito islands in Puerto Rico, a prime turtle nesting spot. The US has banned import of shrimp caught in a manner that threatens the turtle or without the use of TEDs.

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