Hawksbill Turtle

Hawksbill Turtle

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The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate) has a beautiful carapace, which caused this turtle to be hunted nearly to extinction. Here you can learn about the natural history of this species.

Hawksbill Turtle Identification

The hawksbill turtle grows to lengths of 3.5 feet long and weights of up to 180 pounds. Hawksbill turtles were named for the shape of their beak, which looks similar to the beak of a raptor.

The hawksbill was prized for its shell, which was used in combs, brushes, fans and even furniture. In Japan, hawksbill shell is referred to as bekko. Now the hawksbill is listed under Appendix I in CITES, which means that trade for commercial purposes is banned.

In addition to its beautiful shell and hawklike beak, other identifying features of the hawksbill turtle include overlapping scutes, and 4 lateral scutes on each side of its carapace, a narrow, pointed head, and two visible claws on their flippers.


  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Testudines
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Genus: Eretmochelys
  • Species: imbricate

Habitat and Distribution

Hawksbill turtles occupy a large range that stretches throughout all but the world's coldest waters. They travel hundreds of miles between feeding and nesting grounds. Major nesting grounds are in the Indian Ocean (e.g., Seychelles, Oman), Caribbean (e.g., Cuba, Mexico), Australia, and Indonesia.

Hawsbills forage around coral reefs, seagrass beds, near mangroves and in muddy lagoons.


A study by Dr. Anne Meylan of the Florida Marine Research Institute showed that 95% of a hawksbill's diet is made up of sponges (read more about hawksbill diet). In the Caribbean, these turtles feed on more than 300 sponge species. This is an interesting food choice - sponges have a skeleton made of needle-shaped spicules (made of silica, which is glass, calcium or protein), which essentially means, as James R. Spotila said in his book Sea Turtles, "a hawkbill's stomach is filled with small glass shards."


Female hawksbills nest on beaches, often under trees and other vegetation. They lay about 130 eggs at a time, and this process takes 1-1.5 hours. They will go back out to sea for 13-16 days before laying another nest. Hatchlings weigh .5 ounce when they hatch, and then spend their first 1-3 years at sea, where they may live on rafts of Sargassum. During this time they eat algae, barnacles, fish eggs, tunicates and crustaceans. When they reach 8-15 inches, they move closer to shore, where they eat primarily sponges as they grow larger.


Hawksbill turtles are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Redlist. The list of threats to hawsbills is similar to that of the other 6 turtle species. They are threatened by harvesting (for their shell, meat and eggs), although trade bans seem to be helping the population. Other threats include habitat destruction, pollution, and bycatch in fishing gear.


  • CITES. Status of Trade in Hawksbill Turtles (Online). CITES Web Site. Accessed February 20, 2011, as of August 2015, no longer accessible.
  • Mortimer, J.A & Donnelly, M. 2008. Eretmochelys imbricata (Online) IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. Accessed on February 20, 2011.
  • NOAA Fisheries. Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). Accessed August 10, 2015.
  • Spotila, James R. Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to Their Biology, Behavior and Conservation 2004. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • The Atlantic Green Turtle (Online). Accessed February 16, 2011.
  • Waller, Geoffrey, ed. SeaLife: A Complete Guide to the Marine Environment. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, D.C. 1996.


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