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Hawksbill Sea Turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata, Family Cheloniidae, pictures, stock photos, images

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Other common names: Hawksbill Turtle, Hawksbill, Hawksbill Seaturtle, Carey in Latin America (Witherington, 2006)

The Hawksbill Sea Turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata, is the most beautiful of sea turtles, and the lovely amber & black sunburst patterns on the scutes of its carapace have made its shell in great demand for many types of ornamental items, such as combs, glasses frames, oriental fans, and musical instrument parts.

The hawksbill is a small to medium size sea turtle with a weight of 40-80 kg (88 to 176 lbs) and a carapace length of from 75 to 90 cm (30 to 35 in) (Witherington, 2006). It can be identified by its hooked, bird-like beak, its beautifully patterned shell that features overlapping scutes, its small head, a long neck, two claws on each flipper, and its narrow heart-shaped carapace with serrated edges. It has two pairs of prefrontal scales and 4 pairs of lateral scutes, distinguishing it from Loggerhead Sea Turtles, Caretta caretta, which have five. Its shell may feature a range of colors, including yellow, gold, cream, brown, amber, rust and black. The underside, or plastron, is typically cream-colored, as are its fins, which are spotted with dark scales. The shells of older hawksbills sometimes become home to Chelonibia barnacles.

Hawksbill Sea Turtles are found in tropical waters throughout the world, and most frequently reside in the vicinity of coral reefs. They prefer shallower waters of 18 meters or less and are often found resting under coral ledges, outcroppings, and in other sheltered areas, such as caves. They hide for protection in crevices and are adept at maneuvering.

Hawksbills are unusual in that their preferred food is the sponge. Sponges are toxic to most animals, and certain species contain slivers of glass-like silica.  Some humans have died after eating the meat of the hawksbill that contained residual sponge toxins. Other foods eaten by hawksbills are jellyfish, snails, mollusks, anemones, sea urchins, crustaceans, sea plants, and scavenged fish and squid.

Unlike the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle, Lepidochelys olivacea, and Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, Lepidochelys kempii, Hawksbill Sea Turtles do not nest in large groups, but seek out isolated nesting spots on the tropical island beaches and quiet continental coasts where they were born. Thanks to their small size and maneuverability, they are able to climb around obstacles to seek out protected nesting spots that would be inaccessible to larger species. Their success in choosing nesting spots that are difficult for poachers to find may be one reason they have survived as a species.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle underwater image
Picture of hawksbill sea turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata, Bahamas, Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean. Image #: 013437

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Subphylum: Vertebrata

Class: Reptilia

Order: Testudines

Suborder: Cryptodera

Superfamily: Chelonioidea

Family: Cheloniidae

Genus Species: Eretmochelys imbricata

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Hawksbills nest about 5 times during a laying season, which occurs every two to three years. Each clutch contains about 130 brown eggs. It takes two months for the hawksbill eggs to hatch and the 4 cm (2 inch) babies emerge at night and are said to use reflected light on the water as their guide to the sea. They are sometimes confused by reflected car or streetlights and head in the wrong direction.

Hawksbill hatchlings typically go through a pelagic period where they disperse into the open ocean for a few years, and then return to shallow waters when they reach 20 to 30 cm (8 to 12 inches) in length. However, research suggests that hawksbills from Hawaii and the Seychelles may skip this pelagic period and stay close to home all their lives. It takes hawksbills 20 to 40 years to become adults. Their average longevity is not known.

Despite the hawksbill’s efforts to conceal its eggs, they are sometimes found and consumed by people, dogs, rats and raccoons. Herons, gulls and crabs intercept hatchlings as they travel from their nest to the sea. If they manage to reach the sea, they are then preyed upon by humans, sharks, crocodiles, octopuses, and large fish. These dangers, along with the marketability of their shell, make them highly threatened as a species.

Biologists believe that the population of Hawksbill Sea Turtles has gone down by 80% in the last 100 years. Fewer than 15,000 nesting females reach worldwide shores each year to lay eggs. The IUCN lists the hawksbill as Critically Endangered.

For a diagram helpful in identifying the hawksbill sea turtle, see:

• Hawksbill Sea Turtle information assembled from published and on-line sources by Kevin Miller on Nov. 9, 2006 for


Perrine, D. Sea Turtles of the World, Voyageur Press, 2003.

Ripple, J. Sea Turtles, Voyageur Press, 1996.

Witherington, B. Sea Turtles, Voyageur Press, 2006.