Turtle Talk


Guide to Taking a Sea Turtle to a Nice Dinner

Stephanie Sowa


We were taught manners at the dinner table. One important rule was “Don’t talk with food in your mouth!” Does this rule apply to sea turtles? Yes and no! Sea turtles do not possess teeth; instead, each species of sea turtle has unique adaptations of beaks to accommodate the consumption of their different diets as juveniles and adults1. This guide serves to inform you how to make all species of sea turtles’ stomachs happy!

Green: Are sea turtles green with envy? Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) consume algae that contain green pigments called chlorophyll, which changes the color of their plastron (the tummy side of a turtle) to a greenish hue!

Their beaks are serrated to allow for scraping of pieces of algae on hard bottoms, shearing seaweed and shredding seagrasses1.

Hawksbill: Do hawks and hawksbill have the same beak? It’s not that silly of a question.

Hawksbills’ (Eretmochelys imbricata) beaks are tapered and protuberant, just like that of a hawk1. This bird-like shape is beneficial to chomp on tiny food particles found in the fractures of coral reefs1. The beak has an overbite for slicing and biting prey1. The hawksbill’s diet chiefly includes sponges and invertebrates (ascidians and mollusks) and sometimes sea grasses1. Hawksbill sea turtles have a specialized niche, including their diet of sponges because their adaptations overcome the challenges of toxins and spicules (sharp pieces) found in sponges on tropical and sub-tropical reefs1.

Kemp’s Ridley: Feeling lucky? It takes loads of luck to spot a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) In the sea turtle kingdom: the Kemp’s Ridley species is the rarest of them all. If you want to dine with Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, you must take them to a fancy restaurant that serves crabs1. Their beaks allow for consumption of the hard prey.

Flatback: Want to dine with a flatback sea turtle? You will need to book a plane ticket to Australia. Flat back sea turtles (Natator depressus) are not found in Costa Rica. However, they eat soft, bottom dwelling sea cucumbers, soft corals, and sea pens1.

Olive Ridley: Do olive ridley sea turtles eat olives? These omnivorous creatures don’t actually eat olives. You should take an olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) to the all you can eat buffet! They are omnivorous, meaning they consume both plants and animals.

Loggerheads: Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta Caretta) have strong jaw muscles used for grasping moving crustaceans and horseshoe crabs1. Loggerhead sea turtles and olive ridley sea turtles could share a buffet lunch together because both have omnivorous diets. The bony plates in a loggerhead jaw obliterate the tough shell of their prey1. Loggerheads consume crustaceans, mollusks, mangrove leaves, and jellyfish.

Leatherback: Last but not least leaves the leatherbacks (Dermochyles coriacea). What do plastic bags and jellyfish have in common? They look the same to leatherback sea turtles. Leatherbacks are deep divers that consume up to twice their body weight per day of jellyfish; the average leatherback body weighs 500 to 2000 pounds6. Thus, leatherbacks can consume well over 2000 pounds of jellyfish per day. Leatherbacks have built-in, knife-like upper jaws that allows for the piercing of the soft jellyfish prey. Further, leatherback sea turtles have papillae (flexible spines) in their throat to push back the food to their stomachs1. Leatherback sea turtles prefer jellyfish but also consume small fish and sea life caught in jellyfish.1

Now you are an expert on the dietary preferences on all the sea turtle species in the world and can ensure that each and every sea turtle would be a happy dinner guest! Bon Appetit!


  1. Gulko DA & Eckert KL (2004) Sea Turtles: An Ecological Guide. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, HI. 128 pp.
  2. http://www.bsu.edu/eft/belize/p/libt/seaturtles2.html
  3. http://www.conserveturtles.org/images/seaturtles/green-adult-DavidSchrichte.jpg
  4. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/green-sea-turtle-chelonia-mydas-eating-sea-high-res-stock-photography/556439933
  5. http://www.oceanwideimages.com/images/6323/large/24M2255-54-hawksbill-sea-turtle.jpg
  6. http://www.seeturtles.org/leatherback-turtles/
  7. http://www.snopes.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Collage.jpg


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