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Range / Habitat

  • Occurs in the Western Atlantic along the eastern coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Found in coastal areas near muddy or sandy bottoms. In open ocean, this turtle can dive to great depths.
  • Juveniles found further out from coastal areas in more open waters. Known to rest among sargassum seaweed.

Physical Characteristics

  • Coloration is a combination of gray and green. Plastron (bottom shell) is pale yellow in color.
  • Shell may be as wide as it is long. Carapace (top shell) contains 5 pairs of scutes (scale-like plates made of keratin). Each front flipper has one claw; back flippers may have one claw or two. Large flippers; cannot be withdrawn into shell.
  • Sexually dimorphic; males have longer, thicker tails.
  • Excellent sense of smell; underwater vision is good but sea turtles are near-sighted on land.
  • Salt gland continuously excretes thick, clear mucous that lubricates the eyes and eliminates excess salt.
  • Maximum weight of 100 lbs. (45 kg).
  • Common length of 22 to 30 inches (55-75 cm).

Diet / Feeding

  • Diet consists mainly of crabs, but may also include mollusks (snails and bivalves), fish and jellyfish. May also eat some vegetation.
  • Feeds by using thick jaws to crush prey.

Reproduction / Growth

  • Mating occurs in the water.
  • Female returns to beach of her birth from May to July and uses flippers to dig a pit. Female deposits eggs in pit, covers chamber with sand using back flippers, and then crawls back into the sea.
  • Lays two to three clutches of approximately 100 eggs per nesting season.
  • Typically takes 50-60 days to incubate.
  • Synchronized nesting habits. Large groups of females come ashore at the same time to lay eggs in what’s called an “arribada,” which is Spanish for “arrival.” Unclear what triggers arribadas.
  • Only sea turtle species that nests mainly during daylight hours.
  • Nest temperature determines sex of hatchlings. Cooler temperatures typically produce more males; warmer temperatures typically produce more females.
  • Males and females take 11-35 years to reach maturity.

Conservation Status

  • “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List.
  • Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Dramatic decline in nesting population since the mid-1900s.
    • Amateur video taken near Rancho Nuevo Mexico in 1947 shows about 42,000 nesting females come ashore in a single day. Also shows villagers collecting eggs from nests; It is thought that 80% of nests were excavated.
    • By the late 1960s, the largest arribada is only 5,000 individuals; between 1978-1991 only 200 females nest annually.
    • In 1966, nesting beaches placed under official protection; egg collection is no longer a major threat. Species now thought to be in early stages of recovery.
  • Bycatch – the accidental capture in fishing gear – is another major threat.
    • Turtle Excluder Devices, or TEDs, and other changes in fishing practice and gear modifications have led to a decrease in sea turtle bycatch.
  • Primary conservation pressures are now habitat loss and pollution.

Additional Information

  • Smallest species of sea turtle.
  • Highly migratory.
  • Named for Richard M. Kemp, a Florida fisherman who first pushed for the species to be identified in 1906.
  • Lifespan in natural habitat is typically 30-50 years.