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New habitat for critically endangered turtle

31 August 2011

Research published today in Biology Letters reveals that a rare sea turtle has defied zoologists’ expectations by changing its habitat from coral reefs to mangrove forests.

Along with many turtle species, populations of hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricate) have declined drastically in recent years.  The species – also found in coral reefs in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific – was thought to be extinct in the Eastern Pacific area until recently.  Scientists assumed that this was due to the sparse distribution of coral reefs in the area.

However, the new research used satellite tracking methods to reveal that the hawksbill appears to have moved away from its usual reef environment and adapted to inhabit saltwater mangrove forests.  The findings came as a surprise to the scientists, as the turtle has previously only been observed in coral reefs and the mangrove forests represent a completely new habitat for the species.

The research has important conservation implications, not only for the critically endangered hawksbill but also for the mangrove forests they inhabit.  Furthermore, as the authors state, their research shows that conservationists need to keep open minds when devising strategies to protect endangered species: “Given that hawksbills were recently considered functionally extirpated in the Eastern Pacific, our findings emphasise the importance of considering atypical habitats for rare species.”