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Turtles in Puerto Rico

The four turtles in Puerto Rico include three marine turtles and a slider which is a freshwater turtle. The marine turtles are endangered and there are conservation efforts underway to protect wild populations.

These marine turtles are migratory, but all of these species nest in Puerto Rico on the beaches of Isla Mona and Isla Culebra. Hundreds of thousands to millions of tourists around the world visit Puerto Rico to catch sight of these rather rare marine reptiles. 

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean sea and is located about 1000 miles from Florida. It is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

Marine Turtles in Puerto Rico

Several sea turtles call Puerto Rico home and during the nesting seasons. Turtles such as the hawksbill sea turtle nest on the shores of islands such as mona island and Culebra including Brava, Resaca, and Zoni.

In all, three sea turtles nest in Puerto Rico and these include the green sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, and the hawksbill sea turtle. We have a look at all three of these majestic chelonians 

1. Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) swimming off Mosquito Pier, Puerto Rico
A Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) swimming off Mosquito Pier, Puerto Rico. – Source
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Eretmochelys imbricata
  • Spanish Names: Carey de Concha
  • Adult Size: 2 to 3.5 feet, 100 to 150 pounds
  • Lifespan: 50 years
  • Conservation Status: Endangered (on the US Endangered Species Act), Critically Endangered on the IUCN

The hawksbill acquires its common name from the beak-like mouth which looks like a hawk’s bill. 

Isla Mona (the island of Mona) is the largest nesting ground for hawksbill in the Caribbeans.

However, a huge threat to the nests and eggs are feral pigs who destroy a huge majority of the eggs. An exclusion fence was built to protect the eggs from the pigs. This has helped improve the survival rates of the eggs.

Although the better solution will be the removal of the invasive feral pigs. In 2005 there were over 1003 nests on the beaches of Isla Mona over a monitoring period of  116 days. Currently, over 1,500 clutches are laid every year on  Isla Mona.

The hawksbill can be found in all the major oceans in the tropical and subtropical waters. They are however found mainly in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The turtle prefers hard bottom habitats with sponges, which they feed on. They can also be found in reefs, continental shelves, lagoons, and shoals.

When young the hawksbill has a heart-shaped carapace but as the turtle matures, the carapace elongates and loses its heart shape. The turtle is quite small for a sea turtle. Females reach an average length of 87 cm and an average mass of 80 kg.

Males have thicker tails, longer claws, a more concave plastron, and brighter coloration. Hatchlings that emerge in Puerto Rico have an average length of 42 mm (SCL), and a mass of 13.5 to 19.5 grams.

In hawksbills, mating takes place every two to three years and usually in shallow waters near the shore. Both males and females reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years. Nesting season starts in July and ends in October.

The nesting female lay up to three clutches over thirteen to fifteen days.  The average number of offspring per nesting female is 140. The eggs take 60 days to hatch.

The hawksbill is suspected to live for 30 to 50 years.

One major threat to the wild populations includes by-catch fishing where the turtles are accidentally caught in fishing nets and end up drowning. Although the luth is a marine reptile, it still needs to breathe air to survive.

Fishing equipment that hawksbill gets trapped by include gillnets and hook & line fisheries.

Another significant threat to the species is the harvest of the turtle’s eggs as well as the turtles themselves. The species have been harvested for their eggs, shells, and meat.

The shells are used in the production of decorative items such as jewelry, hair clips, and other trinkets. The eggs are also collected and eaten. While the meat is also harvested, this is much less common.

Degradation and loss of nesting sites have also negatively impacted wild populations. Coastal developments such as shoreline armoring have degraded and destroyed many nesting sites.

On Isla Mona, predation of eggs by species such as feral pigs, raccoons, and feral dogs has led to the rampant destruction of hawksbill eggs.

2. Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) swimming off of Cayo Norte, Puerto Rico
A Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) swimming off of Cayo Norte, Puerto Rico. – Source
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonia mydas
  • Other Names: green turtle or black (sea) turtle
  • Adult Size: 2 to 3.5 feet, 100 to 150 pounds
  • Lifespan: 70 years
  • Conservation Status: North Atlantic population is considered Threatened (US Endangered Species Act), Endangered on the IUCN Red List

The green sea turtle is a large turtle and is considered the largest hard-shelled marine turtle with adults reaching lengths of 39 inches and masses of 350 pounds (159 kg). Among adults, the carapace of this turtle is brown in coloration with dark splotches.

Hatchings measure just 2 inches (5 cm) long and have a mass of about 0.05 pounds (25 grams). The younglings have black carapace and a white plastron.

You may be wondering why the species is referred to as green sea turtles. This is related to the color of their body fat which is greenish in coloration.

The green sea turtle is thought to live to be 15 to 30 years although evidence indicates that the species can live to be over 50 years. The cold-blooded green sea turtle can remain underwater for 5 hours.

Mating occurs from June to September. Females mate every 2 to 4 years. Nesting females lay their eggs close to the sea, on the shores of where they mate.

Nesting females lay an average of 3 clutches per nesting season with each clutch having 75 to 200 eggs. After 45 to 75 days, the eggs hatch, and the hatchlings instinctively head to the sea. Both males and females reach reproductive maturity at age 27 to 50 years.

The Isla Culebra is considered a critical habitat for the green sea turtle.

The green sea turtle faces several threats with the primary threat being bycatch in fishing gear. The green sea turtle may be a marine reptile, but it still needs to breathe air to survive.

Fishing equipment that hawksbill gets trapped by include gillnets, hook & line, trawls, and pot/traps.

The direct collection of the turtle and its eggs also leads to high wild population loss. The turtle is killed for its meat and fat. Also, the eggs are collected for food.

Degradation and loss of nesting sites have also negatively impacted wild populations. Coastal developments such as shoreline armoring have degraded and destroyed many nesting sites.

Other threats include marine pollution and vessel strikes.

3. Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) beached off Matelot, Trinidad and Tobago
A Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) beached off Matelot, Trinidad and Tobago. – Source
  • Family: Dermochelyidae
  • Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
  • Other Names: Luth
  • Adult Size: 750 to 1,000 pounds; 5 to 6 feet
  • Lifespan: 30 years in captivity
  • Conservation Status: Endangered (on the US Endangered Species Act), Vulnerable on the IUCN

The leatherback is one of the largest turtles in the world and is recognized as the largest marine turtle and reptile in the world. While mostly found in the tropics, the leatherback can also be found in temperate oceans and even subarctic waters.

The leatherbacks are known to nest in Puerto Rico, in particular the beaches of Isla Culebra also known as Culebra island.

The beaches that these turtles are known to nest on include Playa Brava and Playa Resaca located in northern Culebra. Both beaches are considered critical habitats for leatherback.

The leatherback is a marine turtle that spends its entire life in the ocean. The only time they come on land is to nest and this is done by the females.

The leatherback is the largest turtle not extinct. These turtles can reach lengths of 2.13 m. the measurement of the tip of one front flipper to another front flipper can be as large as 2.7 m.

The turtle is easily identifiable by its leathery carapace. This gives the turtle its common name.

The turtle can also reach a mass of 900 kg or 1982.38 lb. As you can see, this turtle is a giant.

Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback is highly tolerable in cold waters. An insulating layer of fats and oils, as well as a network of vessels that are adapted to act as countercurrent heat exchangers, help keep the turtle warm in cold waters.

Female luths reach sexual maturity between the ages of 5 to 20 years. The leathers lay 5 to 7 nests a year and the breeding season is usually from April to November. Females nest every 2 to 3 years.

The luth is a solitary creature that hunts alone. This carnivorous marine reptile mainly feeds on jellyfish and other gelatinous invertebrates. They also feed on snails, sea urchins, cephalopods, fish, and other small crustaceans.

Adult luths have no predators apart from humans, however, the eggs of the species are preyed on by a whole lot of animals such monitor lizards, birds, raccoons, genets, pigs, mongooses, and even crabs. Likewise, the helpless hatchlings are also preyed on by a variety of predators.

The wild populations of these reptiles are on a sharp decline. This has led to the species being designated as a “Critically Endangered” species.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Services has also rated the turtle as Endangered. The trade and capture of this species in Puerto Rico are strictly prohibited.

Major threats to the wild populations include by-catch fishing where the turtles are accidentally caught in fishing nets and end up drowning. Although the luth is a marine reptile, it still needs to breathe air to survive.

Freshwater Turtles in Puerto Rico

4. Puerto Rican Slider

Puerto Rican Slider (Trachemys stejnegeri stejnegeri) climbing onto a rock at La Serrania Park, Puerto Rico
A Puerto Rican Slider (Trachemys stejnegeri stejnegeri) climbing onto a rock at La Serrania Park, Puerto Rico. – Source
  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Trachemys stejnegeri stejnegeri
  • Adult Size: 7 inches
  • Where to buy: theturtlesource.com 
  • Price: $80 to $100
  • Conservation Status: Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List

Puerto Rican slider is the only freshwater turtle endemic to Puerto Rico. This turtle is a slider specifically a subspecies of the Central Antillean slider, which is endemic to Great Inagua, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican slider is gray in coloration with red earmarks and yellow eyes. The turtle is rather small in comparison to other sliders reaching an adult length of just 7 inches.

Despite their small size they can be aggressive when stressed and may even nip handlers. These nips are superficial and cause no injuries.

The species can be found in brackish and freshwater bodies in Puerto Rico. Apart from Puerto Rico, they can also be found in Guadeloupe, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Hispaniola.

As with other sliders, the Puerto Rican slider is omnivorous and accepts a wide variety of foods including leafy greens, worms, fish, and even commercial turtle diets. These turtles are generally carnivorous when young but are predominantly herbivorous once they are adults.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there sea turtles in Puerto Rico?

There are three sea turtles endemic to Puerto Rico and include the leatherback, hawksbill, and green sea turtles. All of these turtles are either threatened, endangered, or critically endangered. As such they are protected by federal laws. These turtles are known to nest in Isla Mona and Isla Culebra.

Can I own a turtle in Puerto Rico?

Yes, you can own several turtle species in Puerto Rico. However, not all turtles can be kept as pets. For instance, it is prohibited to keep sea turtles or wild-caught specimens of threatened or endangered turtle species. The Puerto Rican slider is a popular freshwater turtle kept as a pet in Puerto Rico. 

Can I own a sea turtle in Puerto Rico?

It is prohibited to keep sea turtles wild-caught specimens of threatened or endangered turtle species. Most of these turtles are impossible to care for anyway. They require metric tonnes of saltwater to be comfortable and require specific diets such as sea sponges, and jellyfish. International and federal laws protect sea turtles from ownership. 

What is the most dangerous turtle in Puerto Rico?

The turtles native to Puerto Rico aren’t particularly dangerous. Regardless, all turtles are known to carry salmonella. This bacteria can lead to food poisoning which can lead to death when not treated. To prevent salmonella infections, do not place a turtle in your mouth or kiss a turtle.

Also after handling a turtle or anything that comes in contact with it, thoroughly wash your hand with soap and water. Salmonella infection is particularly devastating to young humans such as children below the age of 6, old persons, and persons with weakened immune systems.

Always supervise children when they handle turtles so they don’t place the turtle in the mouth and place their hands or fingers into their mouth when handling or after handing the turtle without first washing the hands with soap and water. 

Conclusion

There are four turtles endemic to Puerto Rico and these turtles are the green sea turtle, the leatherback sea turtle, the hawksbill sea turtle, and the Puerto Rican slider. The Puerto Rican slider is the only freshwater turtle in Puerto Rico with the rest being marine turtles.

Among the turtles endemic to Puerto Rico, the slider is the only one that can be kept as a pet. The care of the Puerto Rican slider is similar to that of other sliders. 

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and can be located in the Caribbean Sea about 1000 miles from Miami.

If you have any questions or information on turtles in Puerto Rico, kindly leave a comment.  

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