Sea Turtle Species
Saving sea turtles through Education, advocacy, recycling, beach clean ups, protection of nests and rescuing injured turtles. Photo Credit: Mickey Foster, Big Pine Key, Fl.
Sea Turtle Species
The loggerhead turtle is the most common sea turtle in Florida. It was named for its large, triangular-shaped head. This massive head houses the muscles necessary for the loggerhead to crush its favorite foods: lobster, crab, conch and clams.
They are relatively slow swimmers and thus often accumulate barnacles and algae on their shells. Their skin is an orangey-brown color and their shells are a rusty brown under their algae layers. Although abundant in the U.S., they are relatively rare in the rest of the world.
Common name: Loggerhead (for its exceptionally large head)
Scientific name: Caretta caretta
Status: Is listed as a Threatened species in the U.S. under the Federal Endangered Species Act
Range: temperate and tropical waters throughout the world.
Size: adults are 2.5 to 3.5 feet in carapace length
Weight: to 350 pounds
Characteristics: very large head with strong jaws. Rusty-brown carapace, creamy yellow plastron. Bony carapace with non-overlapping scutes (5 lateral scutes). Two claws on each front flipper. Two pair of pre-frontal scutes between the eyes.
Habitat: shallow coastal or coastal shelf waters.
Diet: crabs, lobster and other shellfish. Mollusks such as clams and conch. Being as lobster and crab are primary food sources for these animals a commercial crab or lobster trap must look like a giant lunchbox to these turtles! Unfortunately, they frequently entangle themselves in the trap rope while attempting to get to their “lunch” and can drown or lose flippers to circulatory strangulation.
Nesting: nest at intervals of 2-3 years, sometimes more. Will lay 4-7 nests per year (12-14 days apart). Average 100-126 eggs per nest.
Interesting facts: the main nesting colonies for loggerheads are found in the U.S. and in Oman. Its large head means that its crushing jaws can be up to 10 inches wide!
The green turtle is the second most common turtle seen in Keys’ waters. Green turtles are herbivores, eating primarily turtle grass and other grasses and algae. This vegetarian diet colors their body fat green and is where they get their name. To help them easily graze on grasses, their jaws are serrated.
These turtles are fast swimmers and are more streamlined than loggerheads, with longer front flippers. They are slower to mature than most sea turtles.
Common name: Green sea turtle (for the color of its body fat). Is also known as the black sea turtle in some parts of the Pacific.
Scientific name: Chelonia mydas
Family: Cheloniidae Group: reptiles
Status: Is listed as a Threatened Species in the U.S. under the Federal Endangered Species Act
Range: temperate and tropical waters throughout the world
Size: The largest of the Cheloniidae family, adults are 3.5 to 4 feet in carapace length
Weight: to 400 pounds
Characteristics: carapace color is generally dark green to brown with radiating stripes. Plastron is off-white to pale yellow. Head is slim and blunt. Serrated jaw. Bony carapace has non-overlapping scutes (4 lateral scutes). One claw per flipper. Single pair of pre-frontal scutes (between eyes) is a defining characteristic.
In parts of the Pacific where this turtle is known as the black turtle, individuals are darker in coloration (including the plastron) and the body is more domed or vaulted in appearance.
Habitat: shallow coastal waters which support the growth of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum).
Diet: as adults they are strictly herbivorous, and the only turtle to be so. However, as juveniles (smaller than 8-10 inches in length) they are omnivores, eating a variety of crustaceans and invertebrates in addition to grass and algae.
Nesting: nest at intervals of 2-3 years, sometimes more. Will lay 3-5 nests per year. Average 100-120 eggs per nest.
Interesting facts: named for the color of its body fat which is used to make “green turtle soup” and gives the soup its color. It is illegal to make or import turtle soup in the U.S. but it is still considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. At one time, Key West was a major processing center for green turtles and turtle harvest was a profitable living. Key West had a turtle cannery and turtles were housed in turtle kraals (a Caribbean word for corrals) until ready for butchering. In Key West today you can see the old cannery building and can eat at the Turtle Kraals Restaurant, both on the site of the old industry. No turtle on the menu however!
The hawksbill 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.
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.
Kemp’s Ridley turtles are the rarest sea turtles in the world. They live primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, traveling to New England in the summer to feed on crabs, their favorite food. They are usually only seen in the Keys during their annual migration through our waters. They also have a unique Keys connection, having been named for a Key West fisherman.
Common name: Kemp’s Ridley (named for Key West fisherman Richard Kemp)
Scientific name: Lepidochelys kempii
Status: Is listed as an Endangered species in the U.S. under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Is considered the most endangered of all the world’s sea turtles.
Range: adults limited to the Gulf of Mexico. Juveniles range from the Gulf up and down the east coast of the United States.
Size: adults are about 2 feet in carapace length
Weight: adults are 77-100 pounds
Characteristics: Both dorsal skin and carapace are a dark green to grey color. Ventral surfaces are white to yellowish. Bony carapace with non-overlapping scutes (5 lateral scutes). One claw on each front flipper, one to two on the rear. Two pair of pre-frontal scutes between the eyes. A key characteristic for this species are 4 inframarginal pores found on the plastron. As adults they have a rounded shape and their carapace may actually be wider than it is long.
Habitat: shallow areas with sandy or muddy bottom
Diet: crab, shrimp, mussels, clams. Will also eat sea urchins, fish, squid, and jellyfish.
Nesting: unlike other sea turtles, the Kemp’s Ridley usually nests every year. Females usually nest twice per year in large groups or arribadas (Spanish for “arrival”). An average of 110 eggs are laid. No one (in the U.S.) knew where they nested until it was discovered by Archie Carr that all Kemp’s nested on a single beach in Mexico. 50 years ago as many as 40,000 females at a time would come ashore in the arribada. Today, sadly the nesting population is estimated at somewhere around 2,000 females. The Kemp’s Ridley is also unusual in that it reliably nests in broad daylight.
Interesting facts: the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle has a unique Key West connection. During the years when turtle harvest was a profitable profession, the most common turtles found were loggerhead and green turtles. But every now and then, an unusual looking small turtle would be harvested. They were thought by most to be hybrids of the loggerhead and green turtles, but a Key West fisherman by the name of Richard Kemp thought otherwise. He was convinced they were a separate species and finally sent a specimen off to New York for classification. In honor of his contribution, the species now bears his name.
To aid them in their search for bottom-dwelling prey, the eyes of the Kemp’s Ridley are angled downward, giving them a bug-eyed appearance.
Photo Credit: Padre Island National Seashore. NPS.org
Olive Ridley's are named for their olive coloring. With it's heart shaped shell, It is one of the smallest sea turtles. Rarely found in Florida, these turtles are most common in Mexico along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, but can be found in tropical waters around the globe as well. They are considered the most abundant sea turtle species.
Common name: Olive Ridley
Scientific name: Lepidochelys olivacea
Status: Is listed as an Endangered species in the U.S. under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
Range: Tropical regions of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
Size: adults are about 2 to 2 1/2 feet long
Weight: adults are 80-110 pounds.
Characteristics: Adults are an olive color. Heart shaped shell. Flippers have one to two claws. They have a small head, 6 or more lateral scutes on their bony carapace and large scales and powerful jaws.
Habitat: Coastal bays and estuaries.
Diet: Shrimp, crabs, lobster, algea mollusks, tunicates, and fish
Nesting: Olive Ridleys nest every year in mass synchronized nestings. They only nest 2 times each year. Nests average 110 eggs.
Interesting facts: While they are olive in color as adults, hatchlings are black and pale to a gray coloring as juveniles. Olive Ridley's can dive down to depths of 500 feet to forage for food on the ocean floor. They do not nest along the coastal US as they prefer the beaches of Mexico and Sri Lanka for nesting. As small as they are, they seem to prefer the open ocean waters and will migrate hundreds, even thousands of miles every year for the mass nesting event known as the arribada (Spanish for arrival).
Leatherbacks are the largest of all sea turtles and have the broadest distribution of any sea turtle AND reptile. Adults can be found worldwide. in deep ocean waters outside the arctic. Nesting is mostly in the tropics, including the entire coast of Florida. However the southeastern coast has the most nests each year.
Common name: Leatherback (named for its leathery type shell)
Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea
Status: Is listed as an Endangered species in the U.S. under the Federal Endangered Species Act. I
Range: Deep ocean waters throughout the world
Size: adults range from 4 to 8 feet long
Weight: adults range 500 to 2000 lbs
Characteristics: Leatherbacks do not have a hard shell like other sea turtles. Its scaleless shell is composed of many small bones covered by a rubbery skin with 7 dorsal ridges. Their coloring is slate black with pale splotches. They also have a pink splotch at the crown of their head, and apparently, no two are the same. They have a long teardrop shape, with over sized flippers that do not have any claws. They have large triangular heads with 2 fang-like cusps in their beaks.
Habitat: Deep ocean waters
Diet: Jellyfish are their main diet, but they also eat sea urchins, squid, crustaceans, tunicated, fish, blue-green algea and seaweed.
Nesting: nest at intervals of 2-3 years. Their mating ritual remains a mystery. Females average 4-7 nests, 10 days apart. Nests average 80 eggs and about 30 yolkless "spacers". Leatherbacks are early nesters and begin laying their nests in Florida in February.
Interesting facts: Not only are Leatherbacks the largest sea turtles, but they are also the deepest divers, being able to dive down 3000 feet to forage for food. That's deeper than a submarine! The are able to do this because of their leathery type shell. They also share many characteristics of mammals such as the fact that they are warm blooded, and their rubbery skin feels more like a mammal than a sea turtle's hard shell.