Hawksbill turtle: where it lives, what it eats and characteristics

The coast of the state of Yucatan, Mexico is home to four of the seven varieties of sea turtles that exist, mainly the hawksbill turtle.

This is a representative species of tropical seas and its main distinction is its shell, which is made up of thirteen overlapping sheets and the patterns of bright colors that reach in adulthood.

Hawksbill turtle

Without a doubt, sea turtles are a species that attracts many, since one of the favorite activities of tourists is to be able to dive in areas where they are to be able to admire them. However, it is a species threatened by man.

If you are a lover of hawksbill turtles like us, in this article we will tell you everything about them, from where they live, what they eat and what actions you can take for their protection and care.

Everything you need to know about the hawksbill turtle

Although we all know it as hawksbill turtle, its scientific name is Eretmochelys imbricata, which can be translated as “hawk’s beak”, this by the notorious shape of its upper jaw in the form of a beak.

Where does the hawksbill turtle live? Habitat and distribution

This species can be found in the tropical and subtropical seas of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is considered the most tropical species, since its nesting and feeding areas are distributed between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

Its habitat changes depending on the stage of life in which it is located. For example, hatchlings settle in coastal areas where they can take refuge under floating algae and once they reach maturity they move into open sea areas, where they will find reefs that will serve as their source of food…

The densest population is found in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mexican Caribbean, where the Ría de Lagartos Biosphere Reserve is located and of which it is part Las Coloradas, Yucatan.

Physical characteristics of hawksbill turtles

A feature that we can notice with the naked eye is its oval shell, which – as we already mentioned – has thirteen overlapping sheets that are composed of keratin to constitute its peculiar shape.

When they are newborns, their color is dark brown which changes as they develop, until they reach in adulthood the pattern of rays in different shades of yellow, brown, brown and black that characterizes them..

Its skull is long, narrow and ends in a beak, its lower part is yellow or cream, it has limbs in the form of fins in and each of them has two claws, longer and stronger in males.

What do hawksbill turtle feed on?

The hawksbill turtle is mainly carnivorous, although its diet varies depending on where it is found.

Due to their narrow beak, they can capture prey among the small coral reef spaces. In the Caribbean, they feed mainly on sponges – which is why it is the only spongivorous reptile – algae, mollusks, crustaceans, sea anemones, etc.

The function of this species is to maintain control over the growth of marine sponges that, if multiplied excessively, can damage coral reefs, altering the balance of the ecosystem.

Life cycle of the hawksbill turtle

Have you ever wondered how long a hawksbill turtle lives? Or how big can they be?

The young just hatched can measure up to 6 cm, and have as a refuge area floating masses (such as algae) until they reach 20-25 cm. At this stage, their shell is shaped like a heart, which extends as they grow.

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They are considered juveniles between 25 and 55 cm, subadults of 55 to 70 cm and reach the adult stage when they exceed 70 cm; it is at this stage when they reach sexual maturity comprising between 16 and 20 years of life, which indicates that they are slow growing.

The adult specimens weigh between 50 and 80 kg, although in the Yucatan area turtles have been found that reach 127 kilos in weight. Many specimens can reach up to 114 cm long.

Turtles in general are considered very long-lived animals, in this case, hawksbill turtles can live from 30 to 50 years in their natural habitat, 40 years mostly.

The reproductive process of this species

The life of the Eretmochelys imbricata begins when the females, ready to spawn, approach the beaches selecting a place that is in a higher part of the high tide, to later excavate a nest that varies between 10 and 90 cm deep…

The average number of eggs they spawn is 140 and, once they cover them in their entirety, they spend a small-time on the beach and then return to the open sea. This process is repeated by the female approximately every fortnight until she completes her nesting cycle, which can reach up to eight nested per cycle…

Once this period is over, they return to the sea until their breeding season is repeated, which is done on the surface near the nesting areas.

The eggs incubate themselves, and the sex of the young will depend on the temperature that was the incubation. In the Yucatan Peninsula the average incubation period is 55 days, and this period includes the months between April and November, being from June to November where hatching occurs.

The challenges of the young begin from the moment they break the shell, because the first challenge they have is to dig up, looking for the surface.

If the ambient temperatures are very high, they remain inactive and then start their way to the sea, orienting themselves by the intensity of the light. Once offshore, they are guided by the earth’s magnetic fields to seek refuge in offshore areas…

It is worth mentioning that it is in Yucatan where 3 of the 7 species of sea turtles that exist nest: Hawksbill turtle, White turtle and Caguama turtle.

Endangered hawksbill turtle

At this point, it is important to mention that – globally – all species of sea turtles are considered critically endangered species…

Knowing the importance of this turtle in the balance of the environment, its reproductive process and life cycle, will help to be aware that – if we want to visit its nesting areas – the recommended measures for its conservation must be followed to the letter.

This species has been classified as critically endangered since 1996 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and placed in Appendix 1 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which refers to all endangered species that are or may be affected by trade.

The main threat faced by the hawksbill turtle is that posed by humans – although it is also such a delicate species that even changes within nature represent a degree of risk to its conservation – among which we can mention:

  1. Egg harvesting: which with the passage of time became an excessive exploitation.
  2. Poaching for commercial purposes: either for consumption of its meat, oil extraction and for the value of the tortoiseshell from which its shell is made, which is used to make jewelry.
  3. Changes in the conformation of the beaches where they nest: ranging from erosion, hurricane incidence or sand extraction to subsequent constructions.
  4. Irresponsible fishing activity: since turtles can be trapped under nets or hooks, in addition to that, if it is carried out in places near the nesting areas, the risk of catching one by mistake is increasing.
  5. Various types of construction: from palapas, hotels, bars, roads to physical barriers. All the above examples involve strange elements on the beaches that cause females to move to nearby places to spawn, that they are in danger to reach the nesting areas when having to cross roads or in the offspring, which present difficulty to return to the sea due to the protections of private areas that hinder the way, among others.
  6. Contamination of the soil and the sea: it can be due to solid or liquid waste generated by the action of nearby inhabitants or by waste that is dragged until it reaches the nesting areas, which cause severe consequences such as: alteration of the habitat, accidental intake of solid waste and death of the species by asphyxiation when trapped.
  7. Chemical contamination: which causes alterations in the immune system, malformations and health conditions of the species.
  8. Behavior of tourism: mainly those who carry out activities without awareness or respect for nature, such as the mistreatment of animals handling them incorrectly, diving in prohibited areas, interference during the spawning process or not lifting the garbage that is generated.
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As we have noticed, the slightest change in the natural conditions of its natural habitat generates a significant process of adaptation of the species, which should not happen and therefore makes the proliferation of the hawksbill turtle even more difficult.

In the same way, other species in the region are affected by the hand of man as they are. Pink flamingos and a great variety of flora in the area, such as mangroves.

Work to protect flora and fauna

Fortunately, taking into account that the hawksbill turtle is in danger of extinction, there are public and private institutions that, working together, have been responsible for establishing and promoting projects for the conservation of this species.

Some activities carried out by the Government of Yucatan, through the Secretariat of Sustainable Development (SDS), are the constant day and night patrolling of the nesting areas during the months it comprises, monitoring of the females that come to spawn and informative talks.

At the federal level, there is the Program of Action for the Conservation of the Species (PACE), which proposes a list of actions to reduce the threats caused to flora and fauna, as well as the National Sea Turtle Conservation Program that has made progress in the care of the species, including:

  • Inclusion of Las Coloradas, Yucatán (Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve) in the list of Important Wetlands at the International Level.
  • Official regulations that regulate activities within the beaches, such as NOM 059 of SEMARNAT that keeps sea turtles in their status as endangered, and the addition of the hawksbill turtle to the list of priority species for the conservation of species in Mexico in the Official Gazette of the Federation.

For its part, the civil association Pronatura, in conjunction with the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), monitors and protects Las Coloradas, considered one of the nesting places of the hawksbill turtle. It is also responsible for the promotion of volunteer programs among the locals to disseminate the importance of their preservation.

Tourist attraction in Las Coloradas, Yucatan

Las Coloradas is a small fishing village located in the east of the state of Yucatan, whose main distinctive are the pools of water that acquire a pink tint due to the high salinity of this.

Las Coloradas is a fundamental part for the salt industry of Yucatan, since from there all the sea salt that is processed for food use is extracted, so this industry represents the main economic activity of the town.

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Roche Group, who is behind the production of Sal Sol, the number one salt in Mexico, has a specialized laboratory to preserve the beautiful pink color of the water and maintain the high quality of salt with processes that prioritize the care of the environment.

Las Coloradas, is the favorite nesting place of the hawksbill turtle, representing the seventh place internationally of nesting population and the largest in the Atlantic.

Every year, between the months of April to November – with the greatest boom during June – they approach the beaches to spawn, which makes a spectacle worth admiring. Always keeping in mind, that this should be done with the utmost care and respect so as not to disturb the turtles.

Apart from what has already been mentioned, in Las Coloradas there is a lot to do since it is an incredible tourist park that offers a wide range of activities to do, such as its guided tours by professionals with knowledge in the guidelines established by the laws that promote the conservation of species.

Among these tours, we can mention:

  • Walk through crystallizer
  • Safari Tour
  • Bike tour

If you want to know more about the hawksbill turtle and all the species that inhabit Las Coloradas, taking one of these tours will be the ideal way, since they are designed to provide the best experience without interfering with their natural habitat.

Meet the Hawksbill Turtle in Las Coloradas, Yucatan

Man has a very important role within planet earth.

On the one hand, we are able to make great efforts to maintain the order and life of all living beings around us, and on the other, we also represent the main cause of the destruction of ecosystems and entire species.

Awareness and respect for others must not only be given to our own species, but must be applied equally: flora, fauna and human beings must live in harmony, as it is the only way in which we guarantee the longevity of life in general.

Throughout this article we were able to know the great relevance and fragility of the hawksbill turtle, because the conservation of coral reefs depends on it, on which in turn the life of other types of marine species depends.

That is why it is best to go with certified tourist companies and with corresponding permits, to execute any type of recreation activity such as Las Coloradas, because in this way not only the safety of the tourist is guaranteed, but of the ecosystem in general.