Hawksbill Sea Turtles

 

The Hawksbill Sea Turtle (E. imbricata) is an impressive resident of Palm Beach County’s diverse coral reefs. Photo: Jim Abernathy

Sea turtles have become global icons of marine conservation.  Florida’s bays, estuaries, and reefs are host to up to 5 species, and three of these (loggerhead, green, and leatherback turtles) nest in large numbers every year on the State’s extensive coastline. 

Of the sea turtle species found in Florida waters, the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) stands out as the most consistent year-round member of the 45+ foot-deep coral reef communities that line the Southeast coast.  Still, hawksbills rarely nest in Florida.  This interesting fact helps link “our” hawksbills to other parts of their range, and underscores the international nature of these wide-ranging seafarers. To date, few scientists have focused on Florida’s in-water populations, and little remains known of their distribution or behavior in this region.

In an effort to learn more about this species, Palm Beach Zoo Conservation Biologist Larry Wood has led a team to document the abundance, origins, and activities of the hawksbill turtles that reside on the offshore reefs of Palm Beach County.  This research and conservation program is the first in the State to focus on this Critically Endangered species, and is contributing important information to both the public and to the scientific community. 

To learn more about the The Florida Hawksbill Project, please visit www.floridahawksbills.com.

Current Research

 

Palm Beach Zoo Biologist Larry Wood has been studying the hawksbill turtles of Palm Beach County since 2004.  He and his team have documented over 170 residential hawksbill turtles on local reefs. 

Documenting the detailed whereabouts of endangered species at each developmental stage is fundamental to their conservation. In Palm Beach County, dozens of individually recognizable hawksbill turtles have been repeatedly observed by local SCUBA divers since the program began in 2004, most well within a mile of each's original capture/tagging site. These observations strongly suggested that many individuals maintain some sort of "home-range" on local reefs over extended periods of time, perhaps throughout the majority of their juvenile and sub-adult life stages, which can be 10-15 years long.

The extent of these ranges (individually and collectively) is closely linked to resource availability, and can be helpful in associating the suitability of various parts of the reef to behavioral 'needs' the turtles have such as foraging, resting, or predator avoidance.  The relatively long-term residency of individual hawksbill turtles within small patches of local reef gradually increases their familiarity with their surroundings, resulting in repeated daily activity routines that optimize the turtle’s chances for strong growth and survival.

Currently, the study is focused on identifying these activity patterns among resident hawksbill turtles, and exploring the environmental features that may be influencing them. In other words, we’d like to know why these reefs are so popular among these turtles so we can keep them that way! Using satellite tracking technology, we are getting, for the first time, a detailed look at how these animals interact with their environment, which is critical to identifying future conservation needs.  To learn more about the The Florida Hawksbill Project, please visit www.floridahawksbills.com.

 

Satellite tracking reveals secrets about where the typical resident hawksbill turtle goes, and when. This map shows the range of one turtle over 8 months, right off the beaches of Palm Beach Island.  

Because hawksbills prefer not to nest on Florida’s beaches, we were curious about their  origins. DNA analyses revealed that most of our local resident hawksbills were born on the beaches of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. However, others have arrived from the Eastern and Southern Caribbean. Prevailing currents (in red) would assist their journey here. “Our” hawksbills will return to their places of origin upon reaching adulthood, perhaps never to again return to our waters.  

With Special Thanks to...

Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures, Narcosis Dive Charters, Pura Vida Dive Shop, Force-E Dive Shops, Nikole Ordway, Kay Tennant, and all dive assistants. Scientific guidance: Dr. Anne Meylan, Dr. Peter Meylan, Dr. Barbara Brunnick, Dr. Kate Mansfield, and Dr. Terry Maple.

Major funding for this project has been generously provided by the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society, the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, the Florida Sea Turtle License Plate Program, the Bay and Paul Foundations, the Philanthropic Cooperative, and Ms. Charlot Taylor.

Special Note

Hawksbill turtles are protected by State and Federal law. Never pursue, touch, or harass this or any other protected species. This research is permitted through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (MTP #077) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (Permit #14272).

Contact Us

Palm Beach Zoo

1301 Summit Boulevard
West Palm Beach, Florida 33405-3035
(561) 547-9453

Support for the Palm Beach Zoo is provided by:

Sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture.