Today I’ve actually followed through on my promise and picked a reptile that is quite pretty and kind of cute. At least, I think turtles are cute. You can judge for yourself. But as far as reptiles go, I think turtles are right up there on the cuteness scale. The reptile for today is an interesting fellow, the hawksbill sea turtle.

Hawksbill turtles live in tropical waters around the world, mainly spending their time in coral reefs, when they’re not travelling the world on their migratory routes. Like a lot of sea creatures, not a lot is known about the hawksbill turtle, though efforts are being made to better understand the species.

A hawksbill sea turtle. Image By Aquaimages at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5

What is known is that like other turtles, hawksbills return to land to lay their eggs. After mating in quiet, romantic lagoons, the female turtle then retreats to a secluded beach for some much needed R & R. Once she’s there, she completes her beach experience by building a sand castle – well not really, but she does dig a hole in the sand and deposit her eggs there. After covering her brood up, she heads back to the sea, leaving her poor unhatched children to fend for themselves.

If the eggs don’t get eaten by mongooses or other predators, they hatch after two months and then tiny adorable baby turtles have to make the dangerous trip to the sea. They make their way in the dark, guided by the reflection of moonlight on the ocean waves. Any baby turtles that don’t make it to the waves by daylight are hungrily devoured by waiting predators, including shorebirds and shore crabs. But those who do make it to the sea then enter the next phase of their lives, which is… unknown. Yup, we have no idea what happens to the young turtles during their first years of life. It’s assumed they go out to sea and swim around until they get to a certain size, but we don’t know for sure.

A baby hawksbill begins the treacherous journey to the sea. Image used under Public Domain from Wikipedia

Once the hawksbills are about 35cm long they switch from their unknown and perhaps drifter lifestyle to a more sedentary life around coral reefs. Here the turtles feed on a rather unusual food source: sea sponges. Most animals do not feed on sponges because of two big reasons: 1) they produce sharp spikes made of silica (think of glass splinters) called spicules that normally are indigestible and hurt the stomachs of animals that ingest them, 2) a number produce toxins that poison animals. Somehow the hawksbill turtles manage to eat a diet of 75-90% sponges despite these setbacks. The turtles also go after other dangerous prey, including the man o’war jellyfish. When eating these animals, the turtles close their eyes to protect themselves from the jellyfish’s stings. The rest of the turtle’s body is protected by its thick scales.

Despite the unique characteristics of the hawksbill turtle, little is known about it. After years of people hunting the turtle for its decorative shell, numbers have dwindled and the hawksbill is now critically endangered. Hopefully with more research we will not only learn more about how this animal is able to consume such a hostile diet, but also how to conserve the species.

Cover image By B.navez – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0