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Marine Animal Encyclopedia

Hawksbill Sea Turtle Eretmochelys imbricata

The Hawksbill Turtle gets it common name from the shape of its curved, pointed beak, which resembles that of a bird of prey. They use this beak to feed on sponges and other invertebrates growing on coral reefs. Hawksbill Turtles are less migratory and more reef-associated than other species of sea turtles.

They are generalist predators that forage on reefs for their favorite food, sponges, as well as a variety of other invertebrates that they find. Unlike other sea turtle species, which may cross entire ocean basins several times throughout their lifetime, Hawksbill Turtles may have home reefs (and even favorite hiding places on the reef) where they spend much of their adult lives.

Hawksbill Turtles spend almost all of their time in the ocean, and females come to shore only to lay eggs. For that reason, from the time they hatch and enter the surf, males will never be out of the water again and are therefore more difficult to study than females. After mating, females come to shore several times during the course of the nesting season, dig a burrow, and lay more than 100 eggs each time. Much of scientists’ knowledge of Hawksbill Turtles is a result of studying the females when they come ashore. After several weeks, the baby Hawksbill Turtles hatch and enter the water together to begin their journey toward adulthood.

Like other marine turtles, female Hawksbill Turtles return to the same beach where they hatched to nest, even if that beach is far from their foraging grounds. Unlike several other species of sea turtles, Hawksbill Turtles nest throughout their range, oftentimes in locations with only a few other nesting adults. Other species of sea turtles often return to a relatively small number of nesting areas along with thousands of other adults. Hawksbill Turtles also nest higher on the beach than other species, sometimes under/among the vegetation (e.g., trees and grasses).

Unfortunately there are many threats to Hawksbill Turtle populations, and scientists consider this species to be critically endangered (very highly vulnerable to extinction). Coastal development has reduced the area where they can successfully nest, dogs and other animals often destroy their nests, and people harvest their eggs for food. They have medium sized, beautiful carapaces (shells), and historically there was a strong market for adult Hawksbill Turtle shells. Hunting of adults still occurs in many places, where individuals are either captured at sea or taken from their nesting beaches. Hawksbill Turtles are also accidentally captured in fishing operations targeting other species. Finally, because they are the species of sea turtle most closely tied to coral reefs, threats to that vulnerable ecosystem and to the sponges and other species that live on them add to the negative pressure that Hawksbill Turtles experience. All of these threats have combined to drive Hawksbill Turtles populations to dangerously low levels. Naturally, only one or two of thousands of eggs will make it to adulthood. These added anthropogenic pressures on nests, juveniles, and young adults make the chance of survival even worse. Many countries around the world offer Hawksbill Turtles some or complete legal protection, but even in those places, threats to their nesting beaches persist. Legal measures often extend to turtle nests but rarely extend to the beaches themselves, so alteration of natural habitat continues to threaten this and other marine turtles.

Additional Resources

Hawksbill Turtle zoom image
  • Order Chelonia
  • Length 2–3 ft (0.8–1 m)
  • Weight 100–165 lb (45–75 kg)
  • Habitat Coral reefs and coastal shallows
  • Distribution Tropical and warm-temperate waters worldwide
Hawksbill Turtle habitat mapzoom image