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Turtles in Nicaragua

Nicaragua is home to nine turtle species. This includes five marine turtles and four freshwater turtles (this includes one turtle that is mostly terrestrial – the brown wood turtle).

The black wood turtle is a semi-aquatic turtle that spends a considerable amount of time on land. The two aquatic turtles found in the country include the narrow-bridged mud turtle and the Nicaraguan slider.

There are five marine turtles endemic to the coastal area of Nicaragua including the green turtle, the hawksbill, the leatherback, the loggerhead, and the olive ridley. All of these turtles are known to nest in Nicaragua although the two turtles that come to Nicaragua to nest the most are the olive ridley and the hawksbill.

Tens of thousands of these turtles come to nest on both the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts every year although this number has been on the decline in recent decades.

Table of Contents

  1. Freshwater Turtles in Nicaragua
    1. Narrow-bridged Mud Turtle
    2. Brown Wood Turtle
    3. Nicaraguan Slider
  2. Sea Turtles in Nicaragua
    1. Hawksbill Sea Turtle
    2. Green Sea Turtle
    3. Loggerhead Sea Turtle
    4. Leatherback Sea Turtle
    5. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle
  3. FAQ
  4. Conclusion

Freshwater Turtles in Nicaragua

There are four freshwater turtles endemic to Nicaragua and these are the narrow-bridged mud turtle (Kinosternon angustipons), black wood turtle (Rhinoclemmys funerea), brown wood turtle(Rhinoclemmys annulata), and the Nicaraguan slider (Trachemys emolli).

1. Narrow-bridged Mud Turtle

Narrow-bridged Mud Turtle (Kinosternon angustipons) on rocks and sand near Masaya, Costa Rica taken by Fundación Tierra Ibérica
A Narrow-bridged Mud Turtle (Kinosternon angustipons) on rocks and sand near Masaya, Costa Rica taken by Fundación Tierra Ibérica. – Source
  • Family: Kinosternidae
  • Scientific Name: Kinosternon angustipons
  • Lifespan: 15 years
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable

The narrow-bridged mud turtle is so-called because of the narrow crosslike bridge that connects the plastron to the carapace. This turtle is also known as the Central American mud turtle.

The species can be found in Central American countries such as Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. The species generally inhabit freshwater bodies with low visibility and a muddy bottom.

The species generally lay 4 eggs per clutch and can lay multiple clutches a year. The species is considered to be Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

2. Brown Wood Turtle

Brown Land Turtle (Rhinoclemmys annulata) on dirt in Atlantico Sur, Nicaragua
A Brown Land Turtle (Rhinoclemmys annulata) on dirt in Atlantico Sur, Nicaragua. – Source
  • Family: Geoemydidae
  • Scientific Name: Rhinoclemmys annulata
  • Conservation Status: Near-threatened

The brown wood turtle belongs to the family Geoemydidae. This turtle is endemic to Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Colombia.

The brown wood turtle is a land turtle and is also referred to as the brown land turtle. This turtle is herbivorous and feeds on plants and seeds.

The brown wood turtle holds a conservation status of Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. 

3. Nicaraguan Slider

Nicaraguan Slider (Trachemys emolli) on a log at Rio San Juan Department, Nicaragua
A Nicaraguan Slider (Trachemys emolli) on a log at Rio San Juan Department, Nicaragua. – Source
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Trachemys emolli
  • Length: 8–12 in (20–30 cm)

The Nicaraguan slider is a turtle in the family Emydidae. This turtle used to be considered a subspecies of   Trachemys scripta, where is the North American pond slider.

However, the Nicaraguan slider is now considered a separate species. The Nicaraguan sliders can be found in Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua drainage systems.

This includes the lakes and streams that are connected to these two. Nicaraguan slider is known to feed on insects and their larvae, fish, crustaceans, and tadpoles.

The species breed from December to May and gravid females lay multiple clutches of eggs each nesting season. The species is yet to be evaluated under the IUCN Red List.

Sea Turtles in Nicaragua

There are five sea turtles endemic to the oceans and shores of Nicaragua and these include the hawksbill, green turtle, leatherback, loggerhead, and the olive ridley. The green turtle can be found only on the Caribbean coast and the olive ridley can be found only on the pacific coast.

All the rest can be found on both the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts. 

4. Hawksbill Sea Turtle

A Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) being held up in a blue boat off Chinandega, Nicaragua. – Source
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Eretmochelys imbricata
  • Common Name: HawksbillTurtle
  • Length: 62-94 cm
  • Weight: 80 kg
  • Presence in Nicaragua: Pacific Coast, Caribbean Coast
  • CITES Status: Critically Endangered

Many hawksbill turtles are harvested in Nicaragua for their shell which is used to produce souvenirs and other items. There are several nesting sites in Pearl Cays.

The Pearl Cays is located on the Caribbean Coast and is composed of 18 cays. Which are situated about 22 miles or 35 km off the Caribbean coast close to Pearl Lagoon.

Pearl Cays is home to a wildlife refuge for the hawksbill. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) since the start of their Hawksbill Conservation Project in Pearl Cays, the number of nests has increased significantly.

As of the latest publication, the number of nests on Pearl Cays has increased from 154 nests in 2000 to 546 nests in 2015. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, about 51,700 hatchlings reached the sea after hatching.

The organization has worked with local residents and local fishers to ensure that the turtles are protected. On the Pacific coast, the hawksbill turtle nests at Estero Padre Ramos Natural Reserve and the Aserradores Estuary.

Hawksbills can be found throughout the world’s oceans in tropical and subtropical waters. This species is present in the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean (Caribbean sea in Nicaragua), and the Indian ocean.

As with most sea turtles, hawksbills are a migratory species and can travel thousands of miles all across the globe over their lifetimes. The hawksbill nest in about 70 countries although at low densities in most countries. In the Caribbean, nesting is quite extensive.

Thousands of hawksbill turtles are suspected to nest on the coasts of Nicaragua. Hawksbill Sea Turtles are slow to mature and reach reproductive maturity at ages 20 to 40 years.

Hawksbills of the Indian and Pacific oceans usually reach reproductive maturity at games 30 to 35 years. In some places such as northeastern Australia, male hawksbills first breed at age 38 years and females first breed at age 31 to 36 years.

Within the Caribbeans, the estimated age of maturity is 25 years. The population of hawksbills has been on the decline all over the world. The species face several threats.

In Nicaragua, the main threat to the species is the collection of eggs for human consumption. In many coastal communities in Nicaragua, turtle egg is an integral part of their culinary culture.

In places without protection poaching of the nests is almost 100%. The hunting of the turtles for turtle meat is also a big threat to the wild populations.

Other threats include the tortoiseshell trade. Here hawksbills are hunted and killed for tortoiseshell markets in the united states, Asia, and Europe.

The ja[emes bekko market has had a significant effect on the killing of hawksbills for tortoiseshell. The Japanese bekko industry is still quite active even in recent times.

Other threats include the destruction of nesting habitat due to coastline residential and commercial development, pollution, destruction of foraging habitats, and bycatch in marine fisheries. The hawksbill is considered critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The species has been listed on Appendix I of CITES, since 1977.

5. Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) on sand in Rivas, Nicaragua
A Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) on sand in Rivas, Nicaragua. – Source
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonia mydas
  • Common Name: Green Turtle
  • Length: 39 in (100 cm)
  • Weight: 180 kg
  • Presence in Nicaragua: Pacific Coast, Caribbean Coast
  • CITES Status: Endangered

In Nicaragua, countless green turtles are harvested for meat as green turtle meat is part of the cultural cuisine of many Nicaraguans. An estimated number of 11,000 green turtles are harvested each year. C. mydas reaches reproductive maturity between the ages of 20 and 50 years.

The green turtle is so-called because of the color of the body fat which is green in coloration. The turtle itself is brown to black in coloration.

Nesting females will visit the beach of their birth every two to four years to nest. While these turtles are long-lived, their lifespan is not well documented.

Also because these turtles are not held long in captivity, the lifespan in captivity is not well known. The lifespan of the species is estimated to be 75 years.

The green turtle can be found all around the world, mostly in tropical waters although they may also be found in subtropical waters. They can be found in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean. As with most sea turtles, the green turtle is a migratory species and travels across the world.

Because of the migratory nature of the species, it is difficult to pin down the exact habitats of the species. It is believed that hatchlings and juveniles float passively on major current systems and move across the ocean this way.

After years in oceanic zones, the turtle can be found in marine neritic zones rich in macroalgae and kelp.  Which they feed on until they reach maturity.

From here, they travel between nesting/breeding areas and foraging sites. The turtles are believed to travel thousands of miles between foraging sites and nesting sites.

Green turtle meat and eggs are harvested heavily in Nicaragua. Nesting females and eggs are harvested from the nesting sites in large numbers.

Although the collection of eggs and the hunting of the species for meat is prohibited, the practices are rarely considered an important issue by law enforcement. However, civil organizations such as Cacibolca Foundation and the Nicaraguan army do work hand in hand to reduce the practice.

Another threat to green turtles around the world and not only in Nicaragua is bycatch in marine fisheries. This is whereby fishing gear such as trawls and nets meant to catch other marine animals end up trapping green turtles.

Since these turtles need air to survive, they drown while being trapped under the water. The degradation and destruction of nesting and foraging habitats have also negatively impacted the wild populations.

Another factor that has negatively impacted wild populations is the presence of light on the nesting beaches. This could be from residential and commercial buildings, but it can also be from tourists hoping to observe the nesting females.

The presence of light can frighten off nesting females. Also, hatchlings may move towards the lights instead of towards the sea.

The species is included in Appendix I of CITES. The species also holds the status of Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

6. Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) swimming though the ocean in Corozal, Belize
A Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) swimming though the ocean in Corozal, Belize. – Source
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Caretta caretta
  • Common Name: Green Turtle
  • Length: 92 cm
  • Weight: 115 kg
  • Presence in Nicaragua: Caribbean Coast
  • CITES Status: Endangered

The loggerhead turtle can be found throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In Nicaragua, the species can be found on the Caribbean Coast and Caribbean Ocean.

Few loggerheads nest in Nicaragua. The loggerhead is known for their massive heads which gives them their common name. The turtle also has powerful jaws.

The loggerhead is the largest hard-shell sea turtle. This turtle has a reddish-brown carapace and a yellowish cream plastron. Like most sea turtles, the loggerhead turtle doesn’t stay in one place.

The species is highly migratory and moves all over the world. The species spend the first 4 to 19 years of their life in the oceanic zone in major current systems.

Essentially, they live on the open sea. After this loggerheads move to neritic (shallow) areas that are rich in epipelagic and benthic prey. Here, they forage and reach maturity.

After reaching maturity, the species will travel between their foraging sites and nesting sites every 3 or so years. Both males and females undertake this journey although females are the ones that come to shore.

When not breeding, adults will remain at their coastal foraging sites. Loggerheads reach reproductive maturity at ages 10 to 39 years. Data on reproduction among loggerheads is limited.

This will change in the future as more tagging studies are being conducted. The species face many threats.

Some of these threats include the collection of eggs for human consumption, the harvesting of the turtle for meat, coastal development, human alterations to the coastal habitat of the turtles including dredging, constructions, and beach modification, pollution such as dumping debris into the ocean, and climate change which may have significant future impact on wild populations (such as affecting hatchling sex ratios, sea-level rise, and so on).

The main threats in Nicaragua include marine fisheries bycatch and the human consumption of meat and eggs of the turtle.

The turtle is listed in Appendix I of the CITES. The species is considered Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.

7. Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) on wet beach sand in Limon, Costa Rica
A Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) on wet beach sand in Limon, Costa Rica. – Source
  • Family: Dermochelyidae
  • Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
  • Common Name: Green Turtle
  • Length: 155 cm
  • Weight: 200 – 700 kg
  • Presence in Nicaragua: Pacific Coast, Caribbean Coast
  • CITES Status: Critically Endangered
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable on IUCN Red List

The leatherback is the largest sea turtle in the world. It is also the largest turtle in the world.

Additionally, it is also the largest reptile in the world. This giant has a leathery shell instead of the hard shell that the other sea turtles have.

This leathery back gives the turtle its common name. The leatherback can be found in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans.

The species is found on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua. Around the world, the leatherback is an oceanic turtle that can be found in subtropical, tropical, and even subpolar seas.

The turtle migrates all over the world and can be found at different forage sites at different times of the year. They also travel between nesting sites and foraging sites when they reach reproductive maturity every two or so years.

The leatherback feeds mostly on siphonophores, salps, and jellyfish. Leatherbacks face several threats.

These threats include fisheries bycatch whereby the turtle is trapped in fishing gear meant for other marine species, collection and harvesting of eggs and meat of the turtle, coastal developments, pollution, and finally climate change. Nicaragua doesn’t have extensive leatherback nesting sites.

Some sites on the pacific coast are Veracruz, which can be found in the Rio Escalante-Chacocente Wildlife Refuge and Salamina. The leatherback is listed in Appendix I of the CITES and is considered Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. 

8. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) in sand on the beach at Santa Rosa, Guatemala
An Olive Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) in sand on the beach at Santa Rosa, Guatemalaa. – Source
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Lepidochelys olivacea
  • Common Name: Olive Ridley Turtle
  • Length: 23 to 29 in (58 – 74 cm)
  • Presence in Nicaragua: Pacific Coast
  • CITES Status: Endangered

A large number of Olive Ridleys visit the shores of Nicaragua to lay eggs each year. These turtles come in masses to the La Flor and Chacocente.

This phenomenon is known as arribada. Thousands of olive ridleys visit the shores in synchrony.

The olive ridley is migratory species and can be found in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans. Nesting occurs in tropical waters and the species have migratory circuits in tropical and some subtropical areas.

Nesting happens in about 60 countries and Nicaragua is one of these countries. The species is usually found in neritic waters which are the shallow coastal parts of the ocean as well as the oceanic zones which are the open oceans.

The species have three forms of nesting among olive ridleys and these are dispersed nesting, arribada, and mixed strategy. In Nicaragua, the turtles are known for their arribada form of reproduction whereby a mass synchronous nesting occurs over a few days.

This occurs in less than 12 places all over the world. In Nicaragua, you can observe the arribada at  Carazo, La Flor, and Chacocente within the nesting period which is July to October.

Because of the necessity of the arribadas to the maintenance of the wild population of the species, La Flor, and Chacocente (where the arribadas take place) have been declared wildlife refuges. These beaches are under the supervision of the Nicaraguan authorities including the army and Cacibolca Foundation.

This helps reduce the poaching of the eggs and the turtles themselves. Dispersed nesting, also known as solitary nesting, is whereby individual females come to shore to nest.

Individual females can lay up to 110 eggs per clutch and can nest about two or threes times each nesting season. The main threat olive ridleys face is the collection of eggs.

Thousands of olive ridley eggs are collected yearly. In places where the arribadas occur, protection and initiatives have been put in place to stop the exploitation of eggs at these sites.

These protective measures have proven effective. However, on solitary nesting beaches, there is no protection.

In these places, almost every single olive ridley egg is collected from their nests. Olive ridley eggs are part of the cuisine of coastal communities where these turtles nest.

Usually, local residents are allowed to collect a limited number of eggs for personal consumption in return for helping authorities protect the nesting sites. The main issue comes from the collection of the eggs in large quantities to meet demands by urban areas and seafood restaurants.

Another threat is the hunting of the turtles for meat. Bycatch in fisheries is another big problem that affects the population in Nicaragua.

Bycatch in fisheries occurs when fishing gear such as trawls and nets meant to catch other marine animals end up trapping sea turtles. Since these turtles need air to survive, they drown while being trapped under the water.

The olive ridley is listed in Appendix I of the CITES and is considered Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. 

FAQ

Where can you find sea turtles in Nicaragua?

Nicaragua has a sea on both sides of the country. On the west coast is the Pacific Ocean and on the east coast is the Atlantic Ocean (specifically the Caribbean sea). Sea turtles nest on both shores of Nicaragua.

Along the coast, you can find small groups of turtles or even individual turtles who come to shore to nest (lay their eggs in holes they dig in the sand). However, some beaches are locations for the arribadas.

This is when thousands of turtles arrive on the beach in a single night to nest on the beach. 
The arribadas occur several times a year.

The largest arribadas occur on the pacific side. The turtles involved are olive ridleys.

Here thousands flood the coastline at beaches of Chacocente and La Flor. The second arribadas occur at Carazo.

Because of the importance of the arribadas to the survival of the species, both places where the arribadas take place are declared wildlife refuges. As such these beaches are under the supervision of the Nicaraguan authorities including the army and other organizations such as the Cacibolca Foundation.

This helps reduce the poaching of the eggs and the turtles themselves. The following are the 5 important nesting sites on the pacific coast followed by the turtle species that nest there:

  • Aserradores Estuary – Hawksbills 
  • Chacocente – Olive ridleys 
  • Estero Padre Ramos Natural Reserve – Hawksbill 
  • Salamina – Leatherbacks 
  • Veracruz, which can be found in the Rio Escalante-Chacocente Wildlife Refuge – Leatherbacks 

What is the biggest problem that sea turtles in Nicaragua face?

The marine turtles most affected by poaching and wildlife trade include the olive ridley, leatherback, and hawksbill. In particular, the collection of sea turtle eggs. Although this practice has been declared illegal, there is limited enforcement of the law.

Over the last three generations, about 87% of the global hawksbill population has disappeared. These turtles have therefore been classified as critically endangered.

While the leatherback is considered vulnerable, sub-populations are considered critically endangered, the eastern pacific population to be exact. Data shows the population has declined by about 97% over the three last generations.

The olive ridley numbers are positive when it comes to the eastern pacific populations. In Nicaragua, the biggest problem sea turtles face is the collection or harvesting of marine turtle eggs.

Marine turtle eggs are part of the culinary culture among coastal communities in Nicaragua. Before the 1980s, the collection of eggs was basically low-level extraction.

However, this changed to extensive harvesting of the eggs fueled by the supply of the eggs to urban markets. The shift means that eggs are being harvested in masses by poachers.

In places where there is no supervision by ht authorities and conservation management, almost all the eggs at those sites are harvested. 

Apart from egg harvesting, what other problems do sea turtles in Nicaragua face?

Another major problem faced by turtles that occur in Nicaragua includes the collection of sea turtles for turtle meat. While the collection of turtles for their meat has been declared illegal, there is limited enforcement of the law.

Eggs and turtles are an important part of the culinary culture in most coastal populations of Nicaragua. In fact, some indigenous people are allowed to collect turtles for personal consumption.

However, there are large groups of people including the indigenous people who collect the eggs and harvest turtle meat for commercial trade. This is considered illegal.

Also, poachers from outside the communities come to harvest the eggs and hunt the turtles. Apart from the harvesting of turtles for their eggs and meat, other threats include bycatch in marine fisheries whereby turtles get trapped in fishing gear and drown.

The use of turtle calipee, leather, shells, and oil in the production of jewelry, ornaments, and other products; and the destruction of the nesting and foraging habitat through residential and commercial coastal developments.

What should you do when turtle watching in Nicaragua?

As you may already know, the sea turtle wild population is in a bad state. Wild populations all across the world are on the decline even Nicaragua has seen a decline in the number of sea turtles that frequent the shores.

As such when turtle watching you need to make sure you do not cause harm to the turtle. You should never interfere with the nesting process. Even being too close can stress the turtle and cause them not to lay eggs. 

Here are some guidelines to follow when turtle watching:

  • You should always be at least 3 meters away from the turtle.
  • You shouldn’t be in the path of the turtle. You should never be in front of the sea turtle. 
  • You should be as quiet as possible as you don’t want to frighten the turtle.
  • Do not circle the turtle as this will frighten the turtle.
  • When turtle watching at night, do not shine light at the turtle or near the turtle as this can frighten her. Even the flash from the camera can be stressful for the turtle. When it comes to taking pictures, it is best to wait for the tour guide to give you the go-ahead.
  • Do not interfere with the hatchlings’ journey to the sea. Make sure to stand out of the way of the hatchling. The only time it is a good idea to touch the hatchling is if it is trapped and needs help getting back on track. Always watch your hands before and after touching a hatchling.
  • Do not pollute the beach and the ocean. Do not litter the sea or on the beach.  

What sea turtle protection is in place in Nicaragua?

Protection is provided for sea turtles in Nicaragua by nongovernment organizations and the Army in places such as Chacocente and La Flor which are the two biggest nesting sites in Nicaragua. 
Here the locals are allowed to take a certain number of eggs as turtle eggs are an integral part of the cuisine in these communities.

In return, residents have to help to protect the turtle nests and not overexploit the nests. This protection seems to be working.

Cacibolca Foundation is one of the civil organizations helping to protect turtles and turtle eggs on the beaches of La Flor and Chacocente. Another organization to mention is LIDER.

This foundation collects the eggs laid on several beaches and moves them to a nursery where they are protected. The hatchlings are then allowed to return to the sea.

Regardless of the protection offered on the pacific coast, many nesting sites continue to be raided by poachers. In these locations, almost all the eggs laid are taken.

Additionally, many nesting mothers are captured and killed. On the Caribbean coast, the threats to sea turtles are more severe as turtle meat is an integral part of their culinary culture.

Here organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) help protect the sea turtles. In Pearl cays, the WCS runs a wildlife refuge for hawksbill.

According to the organization, the number of turtle nests on the beaches is improving. The protection of turtles and turtle eggs is important to the economy of Nicaragua as well.

According to World Wildlife Fund, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Africa generates almost three times more income from marine turtle watching than they generate from trading in turtle produces such as meat and eggs and souvenir such as tortoise shell.

Conclusion

There are nine turtle species endemic to Nicaragua. These are the green turtle, the hawksbill, the leatherback, the loggerhead, the olive ridley, the black wood turtle, the brown wood turtle, the Nicaraguan slider, and the narrow-bridged mud turtle.

These include five sea turtles, two semi-aquatic turtles, and two aquatic turtles. Out of these nine turtles, there is the brown wood turtle which is also referred to as the brown land turtle and is mostly terrestrial.

The sea turtles of Nicaragua are all threatened species with the hawksbill and the leatherback considered critically endangered. Nicaragua is also host to the arribada.

This is a phenomenon that sees thousands upon thousands of female sea turtles nesting synchronously on the same beach. If you have any questions or extra information, kindly leave a comment. 

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gabriela

Wednesday 24th of August 2022

The Turtle Conservation efforts on La Flor, San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua are massively positive. The army and the local communities all work together to ensure the long term success of these creatures who bring not only tourism but also affects marine life balance. My hope is these these articles were more positive and insightful on the efforts put forth with actually numbers achieved in the various park conservation efforts. The truth is, there are thousands and thousands of turtles that come up on the beach at least 2 or 3 times a year on this beach as well as the lone travelers the come on the beach.