Their population has declined more than 80% in the last century, primarily due to the trade in their beautiful carapace (shell), also referred to as “tortoiseshell”. Its carapace, brightly colored with intricate designs, is traded internationally for ornamental purposes. The shell is used for items such as jewelry, combs and brushes, and inlay in furniture and other decorative pieces. Hawksbills were hunted almost to extinction prior to the ban on the tortoiseshell trade; Japan imported an estimated 2 million turtles between 1950 and 1992. Despite the fact that the international trade of their shells is now illegal, there is still a thriving black market.
Hawksbills help maintain the health of coral reefs. As they remove prey such as sponges from the reef's surface, they provide better access for reef fish to feed. They also have cultural significance.
The normal lifespan of hawksbill turtles is thought to be about 30 to 50 years, however biologists are not sure exactly how long they live.
Hawksbills are omnivorous and will also eat mollusks, marine algae, crustaceans, sea urchins, fish, and jellyfish. Their hard shells protect them from many predators, but they still fall prey to large fish, sharks, crocodiles, octopuses, and humans.
The hawksbill turtle is a shy tropical reef dwelling species. The hawksbill turtle takes in ocean water while feeding, but gets rid of the extra salt by shedding big salty tears. It is a swift and graceful swimmer, reaching speeds of up to 15 miles per hour.
Hawksbills use different habitats at different stages of their life cycle. It is widely believed that posthatchling hawksbills are pelagic and take shelter in weedlines around convergence zones. Sargassum and floating debris such as styrofoam, tar balls, and plastic bits (all common components of weedlines) are consistently found in the stomachs of youngsters that strand in Texas. It is likely the weedlines in the Gulf of Mexico serve as a habitat for hawksbill that enter the US waters. Hawksbills reenter coastal waters when they reach about 20-25 cm carapace length. Coral reefs are the resident foraging grounds for juveniles, subadults and adults. Hawksbills exist on the diet of sponges--commonly found on the solid substrate of reef systems. Ledges and caves of reef systems provide these turtles with shelter for resting during the day and night. Hawksbills can be found around rocky outcrops and high-energy shoals, which are optimum sites for sponge growth.
The babies hatch during the night about two months later and make their way to the water’s edge, orienting towards the reflection of the moon and stars on the water’s surface. As with other sea turtles, this can be disrupted by artificial light sources. If the babies do not reach the water by daybreak, they will likely be eaten by birds, crabs, or other predators.
Male hawksbills mature when they are about 27 inches (70 cm) long. Females mature at about 30 inches (80 cm). The ages at which turtles reach these lengths are unknown. Female hawksbills return to the beaches where they were born (natal beaches) every 2-3 years to nest at night approximately every 14-16 days during the nesting season. A female hawksbill generally lays 3-5 nests per season, which contain an average of 130 eggs. Hawksbill turtles usually nest high up on the beach under or in the beach/dune vegetation on both calm and turbulent beaches. They commonly nest on pocket beaches, with little or no sand.
Hawkbill Sea Turtle features a heart shaped shell on its body. As the turtle gets older that heart shape will change and the shell will get longer. The head is small and tapered with a mouth that resembles the beak of a bird. They have two pairs of scales along the front of their bodies. You will notice small claws on their front flippers. This is a smaller type of sea turtle with an overall size of less than three feet and weighing no more than 300 pounds. They are slow moving turtles on land.
The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is a critically endangered sea turtle belonging to the family Cheloniidae. It is the only species in its genus. The species has a worldwide distribution, with Atlantic and Pacific subspecies. Eretmochelys imbricata imbricata is the Atlantic subspecies, while Eretmochelys imbricata bissa is found in the Indo-Pacific region.