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Hawksbill Turtle - A Critically Endangered Species

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Hawskbill Turtle photographed during a dive off Ginger Island, British Virgin Islands

Hawskbill Turtle photographed during a dive off Ginger Island, British Virgin Islands

Hawksbill turtles are one of the most Critically Endangered (CR) species in the world and they are the only existent species in their genus. Their characteristics, habitat, food, breeding pattern, threats, conservation efforts and other information have been discussed here.

The IUCN has been reassessing the status of these species since 1982 when it started off as a threatened species and then was upgraded to critically endangered in 1996. This was due to an eighty percentage decline of the turtle population within three generations with no satisfactory increase in population. They are found in the tropical oceans all over the world and can be seen mostly near the coral reefs.

hawksbill-turtle-a-critically-endangered-species
hawksbill-turtle-a-critically-endangered-species

Their scientific name is Eretmochelys imbricata


Abbreviations and terms explained:

CITESConvention on International Trade in Endangered Species

IUCN - International Union for Conservation of Nature

WWFWorld Wildlife Fund

MPA - Marine Protected Areas

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TRAFFIC - Wildlife trade monitoring network

Carapace – Hard outer covering or case of certain organisms such as arthropods and turtles

By-catch - Unwanted marine creatures that are caught in the nets while fishing for another species

Scute - Large bony plates as on a turtle

hawksbill-turtle-a-critically-endangered-species
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Hawksbill Turtle

Hawksbill Turtle

Scientific Classification (Taxonomy):

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia

Order: Testudines

Family: Cheloniidae

Genus: Eretmochelys

Species: imbricata

hawksbill-turtle-a-critically-endangered-species

Characteristics and Behaviour of the Hawksbill Turtle:

  • The Hawksbill turtles resemble other marine turtles and have a narrow pointed beak resembling the bird “Hawk” that gives them this name.
  • The scales on their shells overlap and this gives a serrated look (saw-like) on the margins of the scales.
  • Their body is flat with a protective carapace that has an amber background with irregular light and dark streaks all over. The carapace has five scutes in the central part and four pairs of scutes on the lateral part (please see diagram to the right). The posterior scutes overlap and give a serrated look that resembles a saw. Their shells change colour slightly depending on the temperature of the water.
  • The pattern and colours on their shell are strikingly beautiful. The top shell is dark to golden brown with streaks of orange, red or black and the bottom shell is yellow. Males have brighter colouring than the females.
  • There are two pairs of prefrontal scales on the top of their head (it can be seen clearly in the pictures).
  • They have arms like flipper that help them to swim in the ocean and each flipper has two claws (please have a look at the pictures).
  • They have a tail.
  • An adult hawksbill turtle grows up to 1 m long (males mature when they are around 70 cm long and females mature when they are around 80 cm long) and weighs around 45 to 70 kg. Some huge hawksbill turtles can weigh up to 90 to 120 kg.
  • They need to come to the surface of water in order to breathe
hawksbill-turtle-a-critically-endangered-species

Habitat and food of the Hawksbill Turtle:

  • The hawksbill turtles are found in the tropical oceans (Indian, Atlantic and Pacific) near the coastlines (helps with nesting process easy) all over the world, but mostly near the coral reefs. For example, the Mesoamerican reef, Coral Triangle, Coastal East Africa
  • It spends more time in coral reefs and lagoons than in the open ocean and can be usually seen resting in caves and ridges that are in and around the reefs. They mostly rest in the same spot every night.
  • They have a wide range of habitat from open oceans to lagoons and mangrove swamps as they are highly migratory.
  • It is assumed that the young ones remain at sea till they completely mature.
  • The hawksbill turtles are omnivores and they feed on sea-sponges which are their main food (70 to 95%) and sometimes feed on algae, molluscs, crustaceans, sea urchins, fish, cnidarians like sea anemones and jellyfish, soft corals, sea squirts, sea grass, sea weeds, squids and shrimps. Their pointed beaks help them to extract these from the crevices of the coral reef. They sometimes also feed on dangerous jellyfish like hydrozoan and Portuguese man o’war. Due to it feeding on venomous cnidarians, its flesh can be toxic, but the hawksbills themselves are resistant to the toxicity of their prey.
  • Hawksbill turtles are solitary and they meet only during mating period.
  • They do not have many predators due to their hard and serrated carapaces and the few predators are sharks, octopus, some fish, humans and crocodiles in estuaries.
hawksbill-turtle-a-critically-endangered-species

Reproduction in Hawksbill Turtle:

  • Mature hawksbill turtles breed and nest every two to three or four years in lagoons (shallow waters near the coast) that are in remote islands within their range. They also look for remote areas in the islands.

Hawksbill Turtle laying eggs. Nesting Turtle

  • After mating, the females go into the beach during the night, clean up an area and dig a hole with their rear flippers. This is called the nesting hole. They sometimes travel up to 2400 km between feeding and breeding grounds
  • They lay batches of eggs (up to 140 eggs and very rarely up to 200 eggs) and cover them with sand and then return back to the sea. This happens every 14 to 16 days during the nesting season with generally 3 to 5 nests every season.
  • Nesting takes between 1 and 1.5 hours. Nesting period is usually between April and November, but can sometimes change for different locations across the world.
  • Baby turtles hatch after around two months and they hatch in the night. They are around 4 cm long (carapace length), weigh around 24 gm and are dark coloured. Their carapace is heart shaped and increases in length as they mature. They crawl into the sea and any baby turtles left on the beach at daybreak are preyed upon by shorebirds like sea gulls, crabs and other predators.
  • Their life history can be divided into pelagic (oceanic) phase (lasts for 1 to 4 years and this phase starts from the time of hatching to when they are about 20 to 35 cm long), benthic (relating to or happening on the bottom under a body of water, where they move to areas in search of food) phase and reproductive phase (when they are mature and ready for reproduction).