One size does not fit all: Importance of adjusting conservation practices for endangered hawksbill turtles to address local nesting habitat needs in the eastern Pacific Ocean
Conservation biologists frequently use data from the same or related species collected in diverse geographic locations to guide interventions in situations where its applicability is uncertain. There are dangers inherent to this approach. The nesting habitats of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) cover a broad geographic global range. Based on data collected in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific, conservationists assume hawksbills prefer open-coast beaches near coral reefs for nesting, and that individual hawksbills are highly consistent in nest placement, suggesting genetic factors partially account for variation in nest-site choice. We characterized nest-site preferences of hawksbills in El Salvador and Nicaragua, where >80% of nesting activity occurs for this species in the eastern Pacific, and ∼90% of hawksbill clutches are relocated to hatcheries for protection. We found hawksbills preferred nest sites with abundant vegetation on dynamic beaches within mangrove estuaries. Nests in El Salvador were located closer to the ocean and to the woody vegetation border than nests in Nicaragua, suggesting female hawksbills exhibit local adaptations to differences in nesting habitat. Individual hawksbills consistently placed nests under high percentages of overstory vegetation, but were not consistent in nest placement related to woody vegetation borders. We suggest conservation biologists use caution when generalizing about endangered species that invest in specific life-history strategies (e.g., nesting) over broad ranges based on data collected in distant locations when addressing conservation issues.