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A hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) looks up from feeding on soft corals. The diet of hawksbill turtles varies considerably around the world. Here in the Red Sea they favour the colourful soft corals that dominate this scene, while in other areas the eat mostly reef sponges. Hawksbills also make use of seasonally abundant food, like jellyfish blooms. Very young hawksbills feed on plankton and algae in the open ocean.
Their food is actually some of the most unappetizing reef invertebrates. Sponges and soft corals are both are filled with toxins and indigestible skeletal spines. Sponges have hard needle-shaped silica spicules and soft corals have calcium carbonate sclerites or plates, both designed to deter predators.
Hawksbills eat so many sponges that more than half the weight in their digestive system may be made up of silica – basically glass spikes. How exactly they deal with this and the highly toxic chemicals in sponges and soft corals is unknown. As one of the few browsers of these invertebrate species, hawksbills create space, like elephants do by uprooting trees and therefore influence the succession of species and the makeup of species in their habitat.
Hawksbills are one of the smaller marine turtles and grow typically to about 1 m and 80 kg, but are often smaller. They live for about 30–50 years and it probably takes them 20 years to reach maturity. Although other turtle species are found on reefs, hawksbills are the real reef specialists.
Location: Ras Mohammed Marine Park, Sinai, Egypt