The hawksbill is a small sea turtle. The young have a heart-shaped shell. As they grow, their shells become longer. All of these turtles, except very old ones, have serrations on the lateral and hind areas of their shells. Their heads are V-shaped, which gives them the look of birds’ beaks. There are 5 features that distinguish hawksbill sea turtles from other sea turtles. There are two sets of prefrontal scales on their heads, they have two claws on their forelimbs, their shells have thick, overlapping plates on the back, and four pairs underneath, and the shape of their mouths is different. Males have brighter pigmentation, a concave chest area, a thicker tail and long claws.
Hawksbill sea turtles live mainly in the tropical reefs of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. They most commonly inhabit hard-bottomed and reef areas containing sponges, and also live in shoals, continental shelves and the lagoons of oceanic islands. In general, they inhabit water not more than sixty feet (18.3 m) deep.
Typically diurnal (except during the mating season), solitary hawksbills comb the continental shelves and reefs searching for food. They spend most of their life in the water foraging, resting and cleaning, and come ashore only for laying eggs. They mainly stay close by shorelines, where coral reefs with sponges are found, and not far from tropical beaches that are their nesting sites. Like other sea turtles, the hawksbill sea turtle makes incredible migrations when moving from feeding sites to areas where they nest.
Hawksbill sea turtles feed mainly on sponges. Sea invertebrates, such as sea jellies are also common prey. They are omnivorous, eating mollusks, fish, crustaceans, marine algae, and other sea animals and plants. They like to feed in shallow shoals which have lots of brown algae.
Hawksbill turtles are generally monogamous and during the season they don't tend to re-mate. The female makes the decision who to mate with. It is believed that turtles will mate with the same turtle each season, but this has not been proved. Nesting usually takes place between July and October. At the time to lay eggs, the female makes her way to the site on the beach. This process usually happens 3 times during each mating season, within 15 days of each other. The eggs are placed in clutches of 100 to 140 at a time, then the female covers the eggs up. The hatchlings emerge in about 2 months, after taking several days to dig themselves out. They then head to the water. Hawksbills are able to mate from the age of 3 to 10 years old.
A major threat to this animal is the illegal trade in much sought-after tortoiseshell, which has been used for centuries for jewelry and ornaments. There is also a large market for their meat and eggs, as well as stuffed young turtles as exotic gifts. They are also threatened by harvests for traditional customs, accidental tangling in fishing lines, the loss of nesting sites, and the degradation of coral reef systems, which are their feeding grounds. Climate change is a further threat. Ocean levels have risen and are predicted to rise even more in the future. This can lead to increased erosion of beaches and further degradation, which could wash nests away and decrease the nesting habitat.
According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy resource the total population size of nesting Hawksbill sea turtles is around 20,000-23,000 individuals. Overall, currently this species is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are deceasing.
Hawksbills help with maintaining the health of the coral reefs by removing prey such as sponges off the reef's surface, thus enabling better feeding access for reef fish.