Hawksbill sea turtles are considered a critically endangered sea turtle, even with their worldwide distribution. The Hawksbill belongs to the Cheloniidae family and is the only surviving species in the genus Eretmochelys.
Their appearance is similar to other sea turtles with a flattened body shape, a protective carapace, and flipper-like limbs that adapt for swimming. The Hawksbill’s sharp curving beak and prominent tomium distinguish it from other sea turtles. Depending on water temperatures, the Hawksbill shells can slightly change colors.
Due to human hunting for the Hawksbill’s shell, they have been classified as critically endangered. As far back as Egyptian times, their shells have used for decorative purpose. In Japan, they use the shells for eyeglasses, while the ancient Greeks and Romans used them for jewelry such as combs, brushes, and rings. In China, as far back as the fifth century BC, they were eaten as a delicacy. Currently, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species outlaws the capture and trade of Hawksbill sea turtles and products derived from them.
Adults typically grow to three feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds. The largest Hawksbill captured weighed 280 pounds. A Hawksbill shell has an amber background pattern with an irregular combination of light and dark streaks.
Distinguishing it from other sea turtles, it has an elongated, tapered head that ends in a beak-like mouth. On each flipper, the Hawksbill forelimbs have two visible claws. Its carapace has a serrated look and frequently, it employs its sturdy shell to insert its body into tight spaces in the reefs.
With an alternating gait, while crawling, the Hawksbill tracks left in the sand are asymmetrical. They can become toxic due to their consumption of venomous cnidarians. Shown to be biofluorescent it is the first reptile recorded with this characteristic. The origins for this is unknown, but it may be from their diet of biofluorescent organisms like hard coral.
Predominantly found in tropical reefs of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Hawksbill is most associated with warm tropical waters. In the Atlantic, the Hawksbill range from the Gulf of Mexico to Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
You can find them resting caves and ledges in and around coral reefs throughout the day. Due to the fact they are highly migratory, you can find them from the open ocean to lagoons and mangrove swamps in estuaries. Their main nesting areas are the beaches of the Lesser Antilles, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Costa Rica, and the Yucatan. Feeding occurs off the waters of Cuba and Mona Island near Puerto Rico.
Mating season is from April to November. Once mated, the females drag their heavy bodies high onto the beach during the night. They will clear an area of debris and dig a nesting hole by using their rear flippers. A clutch of eggs usually contains around 140 eggs. A Hawksbill is considered mature after 20 years, but their lifespan is unknown. The meet only to mate and their only predators are sharks, estuarine crocodiles, octopuses and some species of pelagic fish.
Hawksbills are omnivorous and feed on sea sponges. Other parts of their diet include algae, cnidarians, comb jellies, jellyfish and sea anemones. They also feed on dangerous jellyfish like the Portuguese man o’ war. In order to protect their eyes when they feed, they keep their eyes closed. The stinging cells of the man o’ war cannot penetrate the Hawksbill’s armored head.
Pollution and loss of nesting areas because of coastal development threatens their existence. It is estimated that the Hawksbill population has declined by 80 percent in the last 100 – 135 years.