In honor of World Turtle Day, meet the five species that call Trinidad and TobagoGlobal Voices
This article was written by Michelle Cazabon-Mannette and originally posted on Cari-Bois news. An amended version is reposted here under a content sharing agreement with Global Voices.
May 23 is World Turtle Day, tagged annually to protect turtles and their endangered habitats. In Trinidad and Tobago, the species most people are familiar with, thanks to their nesting habits and the country’s conservation efforts, is the leatherback turtle, which visits the coasts of the twin Caribbean nation every March to August. Lesser known are four other species of sea turtle, all hard-shelled: the hawksbill turtle, green turtle, loggerhead and olive tree.
All five species share some common characteristics. They all spend the majority of their long lives at sea, traveling great distances, with the females returning to the beaches close to their birthplace to lay large numbers of eggs. All hard-shelled sea turtles have bony plates called scales that make up their shell, the pattern of which, in addition to the number of prefrontal scales between the eyes, is critical in determining the species.
They are all equally threatened and have been designated as environmentally sensitive species. Local sentences for injuring these turtles are 100,000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (almost US $ 15,000) and two years in prison.
Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), vulnerable (IUCN)
The largest of the sea turtles, the leatherback turtle spends a significant portion of its life in the vast ocean, traveling thousands of miles. They can be found in all tropical and subtropical oceans, with a range extending into the much cooler Arctic Circle.
What sets leatherback turtles apart from other sea turtles is their soft, leathery shell, which allows them to dive deeper than any other species of sea turtle. Their main diet consists of soft-bodied animals that drift in the water column, like jellyfish.
For the nesting season, they prefer warmer climates. Trinidad and Tobago, located at the southern end of the Caribbean archipelago, is home to one of the largest populations of nesting leatherback turtles in the world; as such, the country has played an important role in global conservation efforts.
While the world’s populations are considered vulnerable, due to recent declines, the regional subpopulation is currently classified as Endangered – a more alarming designation – by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The main threat to leatherback turtles, both locally and globally, is accessory socket species in fisheries.
Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), Critically Endangered (IUCN)
Hawksbill turtles are the second most common turtle that uses Trinidad and Tobago as a nesting place. Being a small, agile species, their nesting activity is scattered over many beaches, including small bays protected by rocks or reefs. Mature females make breeding migrations between foraging and nesting areas on a scale of hundreds to thousands of kilometers.
Juvenile hawksbill turtles can be found in local waters year-round, in coral reefs, underwater cliff faces, and hard-bottom habitats, where they primarily feed on sponges. Their unique diet helps maintain the diversity and health of coral reefs. Distinct from the breeding population, they come from various other islands, including as far away as Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Hawksbill turtles can be recognized by their four lateral scales, their two pairs of prefrontal scales, and their narrow, pointed beaks. The scales on their shell overlap like shingles on a roof, resulting in the jagged appearance of the shell, which appears more prominently in juveniles.
Hawksbill turtles are distributed in the tropics and, to a lesser extent, in the subtropics. Turtles born on the shores of Trinidad and Tobago tend to migrate widely in the Caribbean region, with females returning to nest.
Unfortunately, hawksbill turtles were harvested for their beautiful “tortoiseshell”, which in the past was used to make jewelry and other decorative items. IUCN lists them as critically endangered.
Green (Chelonia mydas), Endangered (IUCN)
Rare to find in Trinidad and Tobago, green turtles are the largest of the hard-shelled turtles. Much like the hawksbill turtle, however, the young greens live offshore year round. They are a herbivorous species, feeding primarily on sea grasses and algae, and typically live in seagrass beds and coral reefs, where algae may be present.
They are sometimes spotted along the rocky coasts of the north and east coasts of Trinidad, and their grazing activity plays an important role in maintaining the health of seagrass beds and coral reefs. They are easily distinguished from hawksbill turtles by their blunt beaks and are the only species to have a pair of prefrontal scales between the eyes.
While green turtle meat has generally been the most sought after in the world, hawksbill and green turtles continue to be threatened locally by poachers, whether on beaches or at sea. IUCN lists them as in danger.
Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Vulnerable (IUCN)
Loggerheads are rare in Trinidad and Tobago, but a number of sightings have been confirmed over the past 12 years off the east, south and west coasts of Trinidad, as well as around Tobago.
In 2017, a loggerhead stranded on the east coast was successfully rehabilitated and subsequently released with a satellite beacon, which showed that the turtle spent some time exploring the Gulf of Paria after being released.
Loggerheads are distinguished from other species by their large heads and the five lateral scales on their shells, although hatchlings can easily be mistaken for hawksbill turtles if you are not careful about the scale pattern.
Loggerheads love muddy, hard habitats, where they feed on a variety of animals, including crustaceans, which they crush with their large heads and strong jaws. They nest along shorelines in tropical and temperate areas and frequent all tropical and temperate ocean basins, with Florida having the largest nesting population of loggerheads in the world. IUCN lists them as vulnerable.
Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), Vulnerable (IUCN)
The smallest of the sea turtles found locally, sightings of Olive Ridleys are rare, but they do occur. Their varied diet, which can include crabs, snails, barnacles, algae, fish, jellyfish, and other soft-bodied animals, means that they forage in coastal soft-bottom habitats, as well as ‘on the surface of the open sea.
The species generally has six or more lateral scales, which sets them apart from other species found locally. In some parts of the world, olive trees exhibit a unique nesting behavior called ‘arribada’, in which thousands of nesting females coordinate and nest on a single stretch of beach for a few days. During the nesting season, the entire group stays near their nesting beach, but this behavior has not been recorded in Trinidad and Tobago, which sees only occasional and solitary nesting turtles. IUCN classifies Olive Ridley as vulnerable.
These once abundant sea turtles play an important role in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems, but they were harvested for their meat, eggs, shells and other products, including intensive harvesting by European colonizers in the region. in the 17th and 18th centuries, which considerably depleted the populations.
Locally, sea turtles generate significant income through ecotourism activities which include guided tours to nesting beaches and scuba diving. Despite this, the species continues to face many threats, including continued harvest attempts, bycatch, habitat loss, climate change, and plastic pollution.
If you would like to help learn more about sea turtles in Trinidad and Tobago, the Advocacy of the Sea website SpeSeas encourages internet users to become citizen scientists by filing reports on encounters with turtles.