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Atlantic Hawksbill Sea Turtle Fact Sheet

Atlantic Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Eretmochelys imbricata

New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Endangered


Drawing of Atlantic Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Severely persecuted for "tortoiseshell" jewelry, this turtle derives its name from the hooked beak formed by its yellowish jaws. It is the only sea turtle with overlapping carapace scales (lacking when very young or very old). Hawksbill sea turtles have two pairs of prefrontal plates between the eyes. The adult's keeled shell is amber with streaks of red-brown, black-brown, or yellow. The underside is whitish-yellow, occasionally with black spots. Adult females range from 24-38 inches (61-96 cm) in length and weigh 60-190 pounds (27-86 kg). The life span of this species of sea turtle is unknown.

The hawksbill sea turtle is an omnivore, eating mostly algae, sea grasses, soft corals, crustaceans, mollusks, sponges, jellyfish and sea urchins.

Life History

Sexual maturity is reached when the animal weighs approximately 80 pounds; the actual age is unknown. Females are quite faithful to nesting beaches; however, they are very easily disturbed and will scurry back into the ocean without completing the clutch at the slightest interruption. Mature females typically nest in 2-3 year cycles. Nesting occurs on a remote, clean beach, usually under some type of vegetative cover. One to four clutches are laid at 15-19 day intervals. Each clutch contains 70-160 eggs which hatch in about 60 days. Emerging at night, the hatchlings make a run for the water and begin their "lost year" at sea, a period during which they are rarely encountered by humans.

Distribution and Habitat

Hawksbill sea turtles are found extensively all over the world, including the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, the Persian Gulf, and the Red and Mediterranean seas. In the western Atlantic, they can be found from Cape Cod, Massachusetts south to northern Brazil. They occur rarely in New York. Preferred habitat consists of warm, coastal shoal water less than 50 feet deep with abundant submerged vegetation. Coral reefs, lagoons, inlets and bays are ideal habitats.

Nesting occurs on isolated beaches in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Nesting has been documented on the Isla de Pinos of Cuba, at Tortuguero in Costa Rica, and on Mona Island off Puerto Rico.


Hawksbill sea turtles are protected in the U. S. under the Endangered Species Act. They are still exploited overseas. Problems facing hawksbill sea turtles include over-exploitation for meat, eggs and whole young animals. Various parts of the body are also used for leather, oil, perfume and cosmetics. However, the greatest threat is the continuing demand for "tortoiseshell." The shell is used for medicinal purposes, as well as for modern day articles of jewelry. The high prices obtained for the shell thwart attempts to protect this sea turtle. A shell can sell for $50 to $60 per pound. In Japan, where the market is incredibly high, a shell might sell for up to $100 per pound! Immature stuffed specimens of this species are also popular. In Singapore and the Philippines, 32,000-105,000 stuffed hawksbills are sold annually.

Management and Research Needs

During summer migrations, sea turtles are known to migrate into more temperate waters, sometimes extending as far north as Labrador. Although nesting does not occur on Long Island, they will occasionally become stranded on or near the shore. In order to aid those animals that may still be alive and to facilitate the timely and efficient handling of carcasses, a Stranding Network was established in 1980 through the cooperation of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Through this system, strandings can be reported via a hotline; the number is (631) 369-9829. Marine biologists from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation handle stranded and dead specimens.

In response to sea turtle mortality in trawl nets, the National Marine Fisheries Service has issued regulations requiring shrimp trawlers on the southeastern and Gulf coasts to have a turtle excluder device (TED) on their nets. This device allows turtles and other large marine life to escape should they enter a net.

A Sea Turtle Identification Diagram

Additional References

Bjorndal, K. A., Ed. 1981. Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 583 pp.

Carr, A. 1952. Handbook of Turtles. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.

Conant, R. and J. T. Collins. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Third Edition Expanded. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

Hopkins, S. R. and J. Richardson. 1984. Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles. National Marine Fisheries Service.

National Marine Fisheries Service and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1995. Status Reviews for Sea Turtles Listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Sternberg, J. 1981. Sea Turtles. Center for Environmental Education, Washington, D.C.

Drawing by Carol Decker

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