09/01/2011 01:54 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2011

Hawksbill Sea Turtles Not Extinct In Eastern Pacific (PHOTOS)

Scientists have for some time now assumed that the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) was functionally extinct in the eastern tropical Pacific. But after a recent discovery, a group of researchers in Central and South America are saying not so fast.

Hawksbills had gone almost undetected in the eastern tropical Pacific since the early 1980's, when scientists determined that they were nearly non-existent in most parts of the region.

The new findings, published this month in Biology Letters, show that hawksbills went undetected because they are "living among in-shore mangrove estuaries rather than the coral and rocky reefs for which they [were] previously known to inhabit," according to a press release from Conservation International.

After three years, the Iniciativa Carey del Pacifico Oriental (Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative) determined that the hawksbills had made a "never-before-seen habitat adaptation." Conservation International reports that "Observers found nesting beaches for the hawksbills in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Ecuador."

The study's lead author, Alexander Gaos, explained to Conservation International, "We were really shocked to see that adult hawksbills weren’t even using coral or rocky reefs or any habitats that were even remotely similar to habitats they associate with in other parts of the world.”

Gaos, who has been working on sea turtle projects for the past 10 years and has focused on hawksbills in particular since 2007, told The Huffington Post that conservation of the hawksbills' mangrove habitats is vital.

He said, "These habitats are incredibly rich in resources and are critical to the survival of hawksbill turtles in the eastern Pacific."

The turtles aren't out of the woods yet, though. The researchers explain that conservation efforts will be easier than for turtles in the ocean, and this discovery may "provide a clue as to where researchers may encounter more hawksbills in the region, improving opportunities for conservation and recovery of the population," according to Conservation International.

But the turtles' mangrove habitats are also close to human populations, putting them at greater risk for destruction and habitat degradation. The habitats are under pressure from fishing, tourism, development and other human activities.

"Of grave concern is the fact that mangrove estuaries in the eastern Pacific have and continue to be under increasing threats," Gaos said. They are "in-fact considered one of the most threatened mangrove habitats in the world."

Conservation International was recently involved in another study which photographed animals in protected areas in their natural habitats.

Photos and captions courtesy of Conservation International.

Hawksbill Turtles