Eretmochelys imbricata

Hawksbill turtle

The most beautiful and rarest of all sea turtles. The hawksbill turtle has always been the most appreciated; Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, Americans and Japanese have made jewelry with its beautiful shell. Their shields are translucent amber with yellow, white, red, black, brown and gold brushstrokes. This beautiful shell has been used to create fine ornamental objects in many cultures, although this is also the reason why the hawksbill turtle has been hunted almost to extinction.

The carapace of this species is elliptical and has thirteen imbricated scutes, which overlap grouped in five dorsal and four lateral pairs. Its head is medium and narrow, with two pairs of prefrontal scales and three or four post orbital scales. Its beak is horny, sharp and narrow, without serrations on the edges. The front flippers usually have two nails.

The hawksbill turtle is distributed in tropical and subtropical seas throughout the world, in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. They migrate thousands of kilometers between their feeding grounds and nesting beaches, even if these are within sight of their feeding grounds. Researchers have not yet been able to explain this behavior. The most abundant populations are found in the Caribbean and West Atlantic, with regular occurrence from southeast Florida, along the coasts of Central America to southern Brazil, including the Bahamas and the West Indies.

Hawksbill turtle reproduction is particular: it takes several decades for them to reach sexual maturity. Although there is no 100% reliable method to calculate the age of turtles, it is estimated that in hawksbills, the egg-to-adult phase can be from 20 to 40 years. Courtship and copulation occur in shallow waters near nesting beaches. Females nest solitarily at night and are said to be the fastest nesting turtles. It has been observed that they seem to run to the sea after spawning, and scientists believe this may be an adaptation to the exhaustive hunting they have suffered for generations: only the fastest survive and reproduce again.

In Mexico, clutches range from 71 to 202 eggs, with an average of 135. Each female can deposit 1 to 8 clutches, usually every 2 to 4 years. They generally return to the same beach to breed, just a few meters from where previous nesting occurred.

Hawksbill turtles play an essential role in maintaining coral health. The physical and biological structures of many coral reefs are directly dependent on the feeding habits of this species. Thanks to their narrow beak, they can capture prey such as sponges in the cracks and crevices of coral reefs, which can eventually compete with the symbiotic algae that live on the corals and are of great importance in providing the coral with oxygen and carbohydrates.

The last 50 years have seen a major decline in the world’s coral reefs. It is no coincidence that one of the sponges that now dominates many coral reefs and has led to their death is the sponge Chondrilla nucula, the most common sponge in the hawksbill diet. Just like that, there are not enough hawksbill turtles that can eat the sponges and, therefore, the sponges predominate in a frightening imbalance.

Eretmochelys imbricata has been listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as critically endangered, indicating significant declines in subpopulations in all major ocean basins. This is a result of overharvesting of adult females and eggs on nesting beaches, degradation of nesting habitats, capture of juveniles and adults, incidental mortality related to marine fisheries, and habitat degradation.

With increased understanding of the behavior, migration and population dynamics of this species, it will be possible to establish more and more protection plans for its recovery. There has been some progress by nations that have enacted laws for their protection; legal international trade in hawksbills has practically ceased, and some populations in Mexico have increased. However, even the most beautiful of sea turtles is at risk of disappearing forever.

It is of great importance to promote education in the places where hawksbills live and reproduce so that everyone understands that a live hawksbill turtle is worth much more than its dead shell.