Abandoning their normal coral reef habitats where they have been slaughtered for their shells, some hawksbill turtles have survived by moving to coastal mangrove estuaries, researchers said.
Alexander Gaos, lead author of a report published Thursday in the online scientific journal Biology Letters, said the discovery is significant because it suggests a potentially new evolutionary trajectory.
"We now know there are about 500 adult female hawksbill turtles in at least four inland mangrove saltwater forests in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Ecuador," Gaos said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
"They are among the last remaining strongholds for this species. If these estuaries are destroyed by development of aquaculture and housing, the hawksbill turtle will disappear with them … that's more hawksbill turtles than anyone thought were left, but still very few."
The discovery is contrary to the long-held notion that hawksbills are strictly coral reef dwellers.
"These particular hawksbills spend the majority of their lives nesting and foraging in the mangroves," Gaos said. "We still do not know why they adapted to this habitat, but we believe it may be due to a lack of coral reefs in the region."