The hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) is one of our most beautiful turtles.  Its spectacularly patterned shell has been highly sought to make tortoise-shell jewelry and other ornamental items.  Hawksbills are small turtles who live on the coral reef.  Their jaws are elongated, making them look like bird beaks and giving them their common name.  This elongated jaw helps them obtain food from small crevices on the reef.  Their primary food is sponges and shrimp.


Common name: hawksbill (named for its narrow head and elongated beak which give it a bird-like appearance)

Scientific name: Eretmochelys imbricata Family: Cheloniidae Group: reptiles

Status: Is listed as an Endangered species in the U.S. under the Federal Endangered Species Act

Range: tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans

Size: adults are 30-36 inches in carapace length

Weight: to 150 pounds


Characteristics: coloration is dark brown with orange tones.  Shell is dark brown with creamy patches.  Bony carapace with overlapping (imbracated) scutes (4 lateral scutes).  Two claws on each front flipper. Narrow head with two pair of pre-frontal scutes between the eyes.

Habitat: found near coastal reefs and rocky areas, estuaries and lagoons.

Diet: their narrow heads and beak-like jaws enable them to prey on sponges, shrimp, and other small prey items on coral reefs.

Nesting: nest at intervals of 2-3 years, sometimes more.  Will lay 2-4 nests per year (12-14 days apart).  Average 160 eggs per nest.  Here in the Keys, hawksbills are rare nesters and tend to nest late in the season when all other species have stopped laying eggs.

Interesting facts: hawksbill turtles have been hunted nearly to extinction for their beautiful shells.  Both the color and the thickness of the shell (making it easier to carve) make this the best turtle shell for making tortoiseshell jewelry and other ornamental items.  This practice has been banned internationally, but illegal trade still occurs.

Sponges are a primary food item for hawksbills and sponges contain glass spicules that resemble tiny glass needles.  These are highly irritating to human skin but do not harm the hawksbill.  But this diet has always made the hawksbill taboo as a food source in most areas of the world.