Sea Turtles of Latin America

Sea Turtles of Uruguay
••• Sea Turtles of Uruguay. Karumbé Project

Marine turtles, also called sea turtles, have outlived the natural calamities, the rise and destruction of other species such as dinosaurs, but now face extinction from their greatest predator: man.

There are seven marine turtle species worldwide, all sharing much the same life cycles and characteristics, though the features are distinct.

The species marked below in bold are those found in Latin America.

Their territory ranges from Central America, along the warm Pacific and Caribbean coasts down the Atlantic as far as southern Brazil and Uruguay. There are green turtles on the Galapagos archipelago, but do not confuse them with the giant tortoises.

There are protection and conservation efforts to save the turtles. In Uruguay, the Karumbé Project has been monitoring two foraging and developmental areas of juvenile green turtles (Chelonia mydas) for five years. In Panama, the Chiriquí Beach, Panama Hawksbill Tracking Project is part of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation & Sea Turtle Survival League.

Three of the seven species are critically endangered:

  • Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
    "Common Name: Hawksbill - named for its narrow head and hawk-like beak.

    Scientific Name: Eretmochelys imbricata

    Description: The hawksbill is one of the smaller sea turtles. Head is narrow and has 2 pairs of prefrontal scales (scales in front of its eyes). Jaw is not serrated. Carapace is bony without ridges and has large, over-lapping scutes (scales) present and has 4 lateral scutes. Carapace is eliptical in shape. Flippers have 2 claws. The carapace is orange, brown or yellow and hatchlings are mostly brown with pale blotches on scutes.

    Size: Adults are 2.5 to 3 feet in carapace length (76-91 cm).

    Weight: Adults can weight between 100 to 150 pounds (40-60 kg).

    Diet: The hawksbill's narrow head and jaws shaped like a beak allow it to get food from crevices in coral reefs. They eat sponges, anemones, squid and shrimp.

    Habitat: Typically found around coastal reefs, rocky areas, estuaries and lagoons.

    Nesting: Nest at intervals of 2, 3, or more years. Nests between 2 to 4 times per season. Lays an average 160 eggs in each nest. Eggs incubate for about 60 days.

    Range: Most tropical of all sea turtles. Tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans."
    Info thanks to Hawksbill Turtles.

     

  • Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)

    "Common Name: Leatherback - named for its unique shell which is composed of a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin, strengthened by thousands of tiny bone plates that makes it look "leathery."

    Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea

    Description: Head has a deeply notched upper jaw with 2 cusps. The leatherback is the only sea turtle that lacks a hard shell. Its carapace is large, elongated and flexible with 7 distinct ridges running the length of the animal. Composed of a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin, strengthened by thousands of tiny bone plates, the carapace does not have scales, except in hatchlings. All flippers are without claws. The carapace is dark grey or black with white or pale spots, while the plastron is whitish to black and marked by 5 ridges. Hatchlings have white blotches on carapace.

    Size: 4 to 6 feet (121-183 cm). The largest leatherback ever recorded was almost 10 feet (305 cm) from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail and weighed in at 2,019 pounds (916 kg).

    Weight: 550 to 1,545 pounds (250-700 kg).

    Diet: Leatherbacks have delicate, scissor-like jaws. Their jaws would be damaged by anything other than a diet of soft-bodied animals, so they feed almost exclusively on jellyfish. It is remarkable that this large, active animal can survive on a diet of jellyfish, which are composed mostly of water and appear to be a poor source of nutrients.

    Habitat: Primarily found in the open ocean, as far north as Alaska and as far south as the southern tip of Africa, though recent satellite tracking research indicates that leatherbacks feed in areas just offshore. Known to be active in water below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the only reptile known to remain active at such a low temperature.

    Nesting: Nest at intervals of 2 to 3 years, though recent research has indicated they can nest every year. Nests between 6 to 9 times per season, with an average of 10 days between nestings. Lays an average of 80 fertilized eggs, the size of billiard balls, and 30 smaller, unfertilized eggs, in each nest. Eggs incubate for about 65 days. Unlike other species of sea turtles, leatherback females may change nesting beaches, though they tend to stay in the same region.

    Range: Most widely distributed of all sea turtles. Found world wide with the largest north and south range of all the sea turtle species. With its streamlined body shape and the powerful front flippers, a leatherback can swim thousands of miles over open ocean and against fast currents."
    Info thanks to Leatherback Turtles.

    • Kemp's Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii)
      "Common Name: Kemp's ridley - named Kemp's after Richard Kemp, who helped discover and study the turtle. No one is sure why it is called ridley, possibly due to having similar nesting behavior as the olive ridley.

      Scientific Name: Lepidochelys kempii

      Description: Head is moderate and triangular in size. Carapace is bony without ridges and has large, non-overlapping scutes (scales) present. Carapace has 5 lateral scutes and is very rounded. Front flippers have 1 claw, while the rear flipper has 1 or 2 claws. Adults have a dark grey green carapace with a white or yellowish plastron, while the hatchlings are jet black.

      Size: Adults measure around 2 feet (65 cm) in average carapace length.

      Weight: Adults weigh between 77 and 100 pounds (35-45 kg).

      Diet: Have powerful jaws that help them to crush and grind crabs, calms, mussels, and shrimp. They also like to eat fish, sea urchins, squid and jellyfish.

      Habitat: Prefer shallow areas with sandy and muddy bottoms.

      Nesting: Kemp's ridleys nest more often than other species, every 1 1/2 years on average. They also nest in mass synchronized nestings called arribadas (Spanish for "arrival"). Only the olive ridley also nests this way. Kemp's ridley nest 2 - 3 times each season. They lay an average of 110 eggs in each nest and the eggs incubate for about 55 days.

      Range: Adults are mostly limited to the Gulf of Mexico. Juveniles range between tropical and temperate coastal areas of the northwest Atlantic Ocean and can be found up and down the east coast of the United States."
      Info thanks to Kemp Ridley Turtles.

      Three are endangered:

      • Loggerhead (Caretta caretta)
        "Common Name: Loggerhead - named for its exceptionally large head.

        Scientific Name: Caretta caretta

        Description: Head is very large with heavy strong jaws. Carapace is bony without ridges and has large, non-overlapping, rough scutes (scales) present with 5 lateral scute. Carapace is heart shaped Front flippers are short and thick with 2 claws. While the rear flippers can have 2 or 3 claws. Carapace is a reddish-brown with a yellowish-brown plastron. Hatchlings have a dark-brown carapace with flippers pale brown on margins.

        Size: Typically 2.5 to 3.5 feet in carapace length (73-107 cm).

        Weight: Adult weigh up to 350 pounds (159 kg).

        Diet: Primarily carnivorous and feed mostly on shellfish that live on the bottom of the ocean. They eat horseshoe crabs, clams, mussels, and other invertebrates. Their powerful jaw muscles help them to easily crush the shellfish.

        Habitat: Prefer to feed in coastal bays and estuaries, as well as in the shallow water along the continental shelves of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

        Nesting: Nest at intervals of 2, 3, or more years. They lay 4 to 7 nests per season, approximately 12 to 14 days apart. Lays average of between 100 to 126 eggs in each nest. Eggs incubate for about 60 days.

        Range: Found in all temperate and tropical waters throughout the world."
        Info thanks to Loggerhead Turtles.

         

      • Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea)
        "Common Name: Olive ridley - named for its olive green colored shell

        Scientific Name: Lepidochelys olivaceaf

        Description: Head is quite small. Carapace is bony without ridges and has large scutes (scales) present. Carapace has 6 or more lateral scutes and is nearly circular and smooth. Its body is deeper than the very similar Kemp's Ridley sea turtle. Both the front and rear flippers have 1 or 2 visible claws. There is sometimes an extra claw on the front flippers. Juveniles are charcoal grey in color, while adults are a dark grey green. Hatchlings are black when wet with greenish sides.

        Size: Adults measure 2 to 2.5 feet (62-70 cm) in carapace length.

        Weight: Adults weigh between 77 and 100 pounds (35-45 kg).

        Diet: Have powerful jaws that allow for an omnivore diet of crustaceans (suach as shrimp & crabs), mollusks, tunicates, fish, crabs, and shrimp.

        Habitat: Generally found in coastal bays and estuaries, but can be very oceanic over some parts of its range. They typically forage off shore in surface waters or dive to depths of 500 feet (150 m) to feed on bottom dwelling crustaceans.

        Nesting: Nest every year in arribadas. Nests 2 times each season. Lays an average of over 105 eggs in each nest. Eggs incubate for about 55 days. An average clutch size is over 110 eggs which require a 52 to 58 day incubation period.

        Range: The olive ridley inhabits tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans."
        Info thanks to Olive Ridley Turtles.​

        • Green (Chelonia mydas)
          "Common Name: Green sea turtle - named for the green color of the fat under its shell. (In some areas, the Pacific green turtle is also called the black sea turtle.)

          Scientific Name: Chelonia mydas

          Description: They are easily distinguished from other sea turtles because they have a single pair of prefrontal scales (scales in front of its eyes), rather than two pairs as the other sea turtles have. Head is small and blunt with a serrated jaw. Carapace is bony without ridges and has large, non-overlapping, scutes (scales) present with only 4 lateral scutes. Body is nearly oval and is more depressed (flattened) compared to Pacific green turtles. All flippers have 1 visible claw. The carapace color varies from pale to very dark green and plain to very brilliant yellow, brown and green tones with radiating stripes. The plastron varies from white, dirty white or yellowish in the Atlantic populations to dark grey-bluish-green in the Pacific populations. Hatchlings are dark-brown or nearly black with a white underneath and white flipper margins.

          For comparison, the Pacific green turtle (aka Black Sea Turtle) has a body that is strongly elevated or vaulted and looks less round in a frontal view than other green sea turtles. The color is where you see the biggest difference with Pacific greens having a dark grey to black carapace and the hatchlings are a dark-brown or black with narrow white border with white underneath.

          Size: Adults are 3.5 to 4 feet in carapace length (76-91 cm). The green turtle is the largest of the Cheloniidae family. The largest green turtle ever found was 5 feet (152 cm) in length and 871 pounds (395 kg).

          Weight: Adult weigh between 300 to 400 pounds (136-180 kg).

          Diet: Changes significantly during its life. When less than 8 to 10 inches in length eat worms, young crustaceans, aquatic insects, grasses and algae. Once green turtles reach 8 to 10 inches in length, they mostly eat sea grass and algae, the only sea turtle that is strictly herbivorous as an adult. Their jaws are finely serrated which aids them in tearing vegetation.

          Habitat: Mainly stay near the coastline and around islands and live in bays and protected shores, especially in areas with seagrass beds. Rarely are they observed in the open ocean.

          Nesting: Green turtles nest at intervals of 2, 3, or more years, with wide year-to-year fluctuations in numbers of nesting females. Nests between 3 to 5 times per season. Lays an average of 115 eggs in each nest, with the eggs incubating for about 60 days.

          Range: Found in all temperate and tropical waters throughout the world."
          Info thanks to Green turtles.

          One species is so solitary that it’s future is unknown:

        • Flatback (Natator depressus)
          "Common Name: Australian flatback - named because its shell is very flat.

          Scientific Name: Natator depressus

          Description: Head has a single pair of prefrontal scales (scales in front of its eyes). Carapace is bony without ridges and has large, non-overlapping, scutes (scales) present with only 4 lateral scutes. Carapace is oval or round and body is very flat. Flippers have 1 claw. Edge of carapace is folded and covered by thin, non-overlapping waxy scutes. Carapace is olive-grey with pale brown/yellow tones on margins and the flippers creamy white. The scutes of the hatchlings form a unique dark-grey reticulate pattern, and the center of each scute is olive colored.

          Size: Adults measure up to 3.25 feet in carapace length (99 cm).

          Weight: Adults weigh an average of 198 pounds (90 kg).

          Diet: Apparently eats sea cucumbers, jellyfish, mollusks, prawns, bryozoans, other invertebrates and seaweed.

          Habitat: Prefer turbid inshore waters, bays, coastal coral reef and grassy shallows.

          Nesting: Nests 4 times per season. Lays an average of 50 eggs at time, but these are comparatively quite large. The eggs incubate for for about 55 days. When the hatchlings emerge, they are larger than most species.

          Range: Very limited. It is found only in the waters around Australia and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific."
          Info thanks to Flatback Turtles.