When you think “sea turtle,” you probably don’t associate them with Texas. In fact, you probably don’t really associate Texas with the ocean or marine life at all, but Texas has 3,359 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Mexico! Home to an abundance of marine life, the Texas coast also plays host to huge numbers of sea turtles. In this article we’ll learn about the 5 species of sea turtles in Texas.
Before we dive in though, I thought I’d mention that the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas is one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites in the United States.
Sea turtles of Padre Island
Farther offshore, oil rigs, both active and decommissioned, create a sort of seafood buffet that the turtles (among other things) can feast on. And, every year, the Padre Island National Seashore releases hundreds of sea turtle hatchlings into the water. They even mount rescue operations- during the winter freeze of 2021 volunteers helped rescued over 800 sea turtles stunned by the cold weather. You may remember reading about it.
Having said that, let’s get to the list of Texas sea turtles!
5 Sea Turtles in Texas
The five sea turtle species in Texas are the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, the Green Sea Turtle, the Hawksbill Sea Turtle, the Leatherback Sea Turtle, and the Loggerhead Sea Turtle.
1. Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
Scientific Name: Lepidochelys kempii
Size: 24-28 inches long, 70-100 pounds
The smallest of sea turtles in Texas, and most critically endangered, is the Kemp’s ridley. They are more common in Texas than anywhere else in the United States. About 55 adult females nest in Texas each year, almost all of them on the Padre Island National Seashore.
In fact, there’s a large breeding program there to help boost the species’ population, and several times each summer there are public releases of Kemp’s ridley hatchlings. People who attend these early morning events watch as hundreds of baby sea turtles are released onto the beach and protected from predators by volunteers as they make their way into the water.
Out at sea, adult Kemp’s ridley turtle feast on crabs and other mollusks, while occasionally eating jellyfish. The males will never return to shore, they live their entire lives in the open ocean. The females will return to the same beach each year to lay their eggs. Most of them next in Mexico, and Texas is at the northern end of their range.
2. Green Sea Turtle
Scientific Name: Chelonia mydas
Size: 36-48 inches, 300-440 pounds
Think of the green sea turtle as the “standard” sea turtle, it’s probably what you picture when you think of sea turtles. That’s because they’re one of the most common species, actually the most in common of sea turtles in Texas at least. And they’re one of the most photographed as well.
These turtles nest in over 80 countries, and in the United States they nest in both Texas and Florida, and the juveniles tend to stick around the nearshore waters there. Unlike the Kemp’s ridley, the green sea turtle is an herbivore- it eats mainly algae and marine plants.
This, in fact, is part of how it got its name. The turtles shell and skin are brown, but because of it’s all-plant diet, it’s fat is green. Sea turtles were once hunted extensively for their meat, which is a major reason why they’re still considered threatened (endangered in Florida).
3. Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Scientific Name: Eretmochelys imbricata
Size: 25-36 inches, 100-200 pounds
Hawksbill sea turtles are distinguished by their beautiful shells, for which they were historically harvested. The shells were used to make jewelry, combs, and other items. These turtles typically don’t nest in Texas, although at least one nest has been recorded at the Padre Island National Seashore. However, young, newly hatched and juvenile turtles are common in Texas waters.
While adults almost exclusively inhabit tropical coral reefs, the younger turtles are a frequent sight around jetties in Texas, particular near Corpus Christi and Padre Island. They hang around these artificial structures, feeding on sponges and wedging themselves into the rocks to sleep. Often they’ll wash up on shore (alive) in a tangle of seaweed.
4. Leatherback Sea Turtle
Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
Size: 48-96 inches, 500-2,000 pounds
The largest of all sea turtles in Texas, and the world, the Leatherback is truly a gentle giant. These 2,000 pound turtles prefer to inhabit deep water where they gorge themselves on jellyfish. They eat virtually nothing else, which makes them one of the jellyfish’s prime predators and one of the biggest factors in jellyfish population control.
Leatherbacks have only been observed nesting in Texas a few times, but they definitely inhabit Texas waters. These enormous turtles are named for their unique carapace- instead of a solid shell, that have a softer, leathery back made up of many small, interlinking bones.
It’s believed that this softer, more flexible shell evolved to help them withstand pressure at great depths- they’ve been recorded diving to over 4,000 feet, so they need all the help they can get.
5. Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Scientific name: Caretta caretta
Size: 36 inches long, 250 pounds
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you crossed a snapping turtle and a sea turtle, here’s you answer. Loggerheads have massive, muscular heads and sharp, tough beaks. They mostly eat mollusks like crabs, oysters, lobsters, and clams. In Texas, they can often be found around offshore oil rigs where those mollusks live in huge numbers.
These turtles do nest in Texas, and like other sea turtles here, most of their nests are on the Padre Island National Seashore. However, 80-90 of all Loggerheads in the US nest in Florida, which makes that one of the two most important nesting sites in the world for them.
Like other sea turtles, loggerheads like to eat jellyfish frequently. Scientists don’t believe that sea turtles are immune to the stings of these creatures, but that for them, it’s actually a lot like eating a hot pepper is for us. So, they may seek out the sting intentionally!