Identifying Sea Turtles

We are getting a lot of questions on how to correctly identify the different turtle species. Especially at night where it is impossible to approach these animals with white lights the differences in their coloring do not really help. There are many more identifiers to look for, like the imprints they leave in the sand, the number of facial scales or also the lateral scutes. To help you determining what turtle you have encountered we have prepared an overview of their differences.

Size comparison of the most common sea turtles (in Cancun)

Size comparison of the most common sea turtles in Cancun

  • Green Sea Turtle
    Length of 1 m (3 ft.) up to 1.50 m (5 ft.) with a weight of 150 kg (330 lbs.) to 180 kg (400lbs.)
  • Loggerhead Sea Turtle
    Length of 0.9 m to 1.20 m (3 to 4 ft.) with an average weight of 150 kg (330 lbs.)
  • Hawksbill Sea Turtle
    Length of 65 cm to 90 cm (2 to 3 ft.) with a weight of 45 kg to 90 kg (100 lbs. to 200 lbs.)
  • Leatherback Sea Turtle
    Length of 1.40 m (4.5 ft.) up to 2 m (6.50 ft.) with a weight of 300 kg (660 lbs.) to 800 kg (1800 lbs.)

 

Green Sea Turtle Identifiers

Green Sea Turtle Identifiers

  • 2 Prefrontal scales
  • 4 Postorbital scales
  • 4 Lateral scutes
  • 4 Inframarginal scales on the chest

 

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Identifiers

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Identifiers

  • 4 Prefrontal scales
  • 3 Postorbital scales
  • 6 Lateral scutes
  • 3 Inframarginal scales on the chest

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtle Identifiers

hawksbill sea turtle identification marks

  • 4 Prefrontal scales
  • 3 Postorbital scales
  • 4 Lateral scutes
  • 4 Inframarginal scales on the chest


Leatherback Sea Turtle Identifiers

leatherback sea turtle identification marks

  • No Prefrontal scales
  • No Postorbital scales
  • 7 Dorsal keels
  • No scales on the chest

 

Identifying sea turtle imprints on the beach

identifying sea turtle Imprints in sand

Sea turtles leave very distinctive imprints on the beach that allow us to narrow down what species has created them. This is very helpful and important when we find a nest and the mother turtle has gone. Generally, the larger and heavier species like Leatherback and Green Sea Turtle leave symmetrical imprints when they pull themselves upon the beach. The smaller species like Loggerhead and Hawksbill create a completely different asymmetrical pattern with their front flippers.

Combining the symmetrical or asymmetrical pattern with the width of the impression makes it possible to determine the species. This method is not 100% accurate and often creates confusion, especially when trying to distinguish between the small Loggerhead and Hawksbill turtle.