The Hawksbill Turtle Is a Critically Endangered Sea Turtle

By: Sascha Bos  | 
A baby sea turtle swimming in blue-green water, just below the surface
A juvenile hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) swims just under the water's surface. Sirachai Arunrugstichai / Getty Images

The hawksbill turtle is one of the world's rarest and most unique sea turtle species. Its rarity is due to centuries of poaching for its magnificent patterned shell.

Learn more about hawksbill sea turtles and the threats they face today, decades after an international trade ban.

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About Hawksbill Sea Turtles

Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are marine turtles renowned for — and endangered because of — their beautiful shells. One of seven species of sea turtles, the hawksbill turtle is unique in that it has overlapping scutes (scales) on its carapace (upper shell).

Hawksbill turtles take 20 to 40 years to reach maturity and can live for an estimated 50 to 60 years, according to NOAA fisheries. Adult hawksbill turtles weigh 100 to 150 pounds (45 to 68 kilograms) and are 2 to 3.5 feet (0.6 to 1 meters) long.

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The name "hawksbill turtle" is a reference to its beak-like mouth. The hawksbill sea turtle's pointed mouth allows it to harvest sponges and other food from crevices in coral reefs.

Where Do Hawksbill Turtles Live?

Hawksbill turtles are found in subtropical and tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are Hawksbill turtle nesting beaches in at least 70 countries.

According to NOAA, the largest nesting population of hawksbill sea turtles (6,000 to 8,000 females) occurs near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, while the smallest population (10 to 25 females) nests in Hawaii.

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Hawksbill Turtle Migration Patterns

After hatching on their nesting beaches, young sea turtles spend their first few years of life (up to five years) in the open sea, living in algal mats or drifts of marine debris.

Juveniles move to coastal coral reef habitats or other foraging grounds, like mangrove estuaries, where they spend the rest of their adult lives. Female hawksbill turtles return every one to five years to the same nesting beaches where they were born.

One exception is the Hawaiian hawksbill turtle population. Hawaiian hawksbill turtles spend their entire lives in the Hawaiian archipelago.

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What Do Hawksbill Turtles Eat?

Unlike other sea turtles, the hawksbill sea turtle's favorite food is sponges. Sponges are toxic to most marine species, and hawksbill sea turtle meat can pose a health threat to humans.

By eating sponges, hawksbill sea turtles maintain the health of coral reefs, as sponges can overtake coral reefs.

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Hawksbill turtles are omnivores, so, depending on their habitat, they may also eat algae, anemones, coral, crustaceans, jellyfish, mollusks, sea urchins, shrimp, small fish and squid.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle Conservation Efforts

Hawksbill turtles were listed as critically endangered by the IUCN in 1996. The biggest blow to hawksbill populations as been the tortoiseshell trade. The brown and yellow speckled material known as tortoiseshell comes not from a tortoise, but from hawksbill sea turtles.

A 2019 study found that 9 million hawksbill turtles were killed in the tortoiseshell trade in the past 150 years (six times previous estimates). The study's authors wrote that the hawksbill turtle "has been traded internationally perhaps longer and more intensively than any other marine species."

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In 1977 by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, prohibited hawksbill sea turtle trade, but nonmember countries continued to trade sea turtles into the 1990s. Illegal poaching is an ongoing problem for hawksbill turtle populations.

Other threats include harvesting of hawksbill eggs and meat, coastal development in sea turtles' nesting habitat, loss of coral reefs due to climate change and pollution, entanglement in fishing gear like gill nets and oil pollution.

Hawksbill turtles appear more sensitive to pollution than other sea turtle species, so even with laws in place to protect turtles from the shell trade, these sea turtles remain critically endangered, rare animals.

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