The source of many of our great-grandmothers’ tortoiseshell combs and hair pieces, the hawksbill turtle can be found in tropical and subtropical coastal waters across the globe. Found in the waters of 82 nations, the largest populations center in the Caribbean Sea, the Seychelles, Indonesia and Australia. Individuals often migrate hundreds of miles to nest at the beaches where they were born.
Hawksbill females are exceptionally fast nesters, able to complete a nest of about 130 eggs in 60 to 90 minutes. Temperature is essential in sex determination. A nest of 86.5 degrees F or greater for instance will produce only females. Those hatchlings that evade predation and human harvesting typically spend 1-3 years at sea before moving closer to shore, along reefs and bays. Although hawksbills are omnivores, as they age their diet increasingly relies on sponges, which makes their meat poisonous [to humans]. This dietary preference performs the important ecological function of preventing sponges from crowding out other species on coral reefs.
Unfortunately, those tortoiseshell heirlooms came at a steep price. Today’s population of hawksbills turtles is less than 10 percent of what is was a century ago, which in turn was a mere fraction of previous levels. The main factor in the turtle’s brush with extinction was human hunting and egg harvesting. Indonesia alone exported more than 700,000 specimens as tortoiseshell and stuffed curios between 1970 and 1986. After being labeled as Critically Endangered by the World Conservation Union, the species’ prospects have brightened. An international trade ban on tortoiseshell has slowed hunting, and ecotourism makes the animals more economically valuable in the sea than on the bathroom counter.March 03, 2011