Status: Critically endangered
Known as: Hawksbill Sea Turtle, Caret, tortue caret
Estimated numbers left in wild: Approximately 15,000 females capable of laying eggs.
Table of Contents
Description of the Hawksbill Sea Turtle
The Hawksbill sea turtle is a medium-sized turtle that lives in a wide band across the tropical and subtropical oceans of the world. Seldom reaching more than 115 centimeters in length and 75 kilograms, these turtles spend nearly their entire lives in the ocean, with the females only coming ashore to lay their eggs.
The Hawksbill has a slender head that ends in a definite ‘beak’, giving the turtle its name. The head and limbs have black scales on a pale yellow background, and the carapace (upper shell) is composed of overlapping plates that are a very attractive mottled amber, brown and gold in color.
Hawksbill sea turtles prefer to live in shallow coastal waters, especially near reefs and lagoons where food is abundant. These turtles love to eat sponges in particular but also eat fish, crustaceans, algae, jellyfish and mollusks.
The adult turtles will never venture much lower than about 20 meters below the surface, and the young remain very close to the surface, which is known as their pelagic phase.
As the turtles mature, they begin to access deeper waters around reefs.
Unlike the mass nesting behavior of many sea turtles, female hawksbill turtles will nest alone or only in small groups.
The female comes ashore at night (even clambering over rocks or other obstacles), clears a suitable area of vegetation, and digs a hole in the sand with her back flippers and lays about 140 eggs.
In about 60 days, the eggs will hatch out, also at night, and the hatchlings will scramble towards the ocean, directed by the reflected light of the moon and stars on the water.
It has been found that hawksbill sea turtle flesh and eggs contain a substance called chelonitoxin.
No one is certain where this toxin comes from, but it’s possible that the hawksbill turtles ingest it with their prey, in much the same way that box turtles will store poison from death cap mushrooms in their flesh.
People who eat the flesh or eggs of turtles containing this toxin will suffer from a variety of unpleasant symptoms: vomiting, nausea, chest pain, dizzy spells, swollen tongue, sore throat, multiple organ failure, coma, and death.
Children are more likely to become ill than are adults, and the toxin can pass through breast milk. The skin of this turtle can also contain chelonitoxin.
Nesting location of Hawksbill Sea Turtle -red: major nesting locations, yellow: minor nesting locations
Hawksbill sea turtles are found along tropical and subtropical coastlines around the globe. These turtles prefer shallow water, especially around coral reefs, lagoons, atolls and oceanic islands.
They also tend to use waters where sandy beaches are available for nesting.
Although the hawksbill sea turtle does have a few natural enemies such as killer whales and crocodiles, the greatest threat to the continued existence of the turtle is man. Hunted almost to extinction for its shell, which was made into tortoiseshell items, the hawksbill is now granted worldwide protection.
Legal trade in its shell has been prohibited, but poaching still causes many turtle deaths each year.
The use of turtle flesh and eggs as food also reduces its population, although poisoning deaths, especially in the Indochina area, has raised awareness of the dangers of eating this turtle. Development of coastal areas and habitat destruction are also factors in the demise of the hawksbill turtle.
Oceana is the largest international organization focused only on ocean conservation, protecting marine ecosystems and endangered species such as the Hawksbill Sea Turtle.
Sea Turtle Conservancy
Sea Turtle Conservancy works to protect the 7 different remaining sea turtle species found in the oceans and their habitats through research, education, training and advocacy.
Wildlife Conservation Society
Wildlife Conservation Society was formed in 1895 with the aim of protecting 25 percent of the world’s biodiversity by promoting the importance of protecting wildlife and their habitats. WCS has five zoos in New York.