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Leatherback Sea Turtle

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Lying on the beach, a female Leatherback Sea Turtle moves towards the sea. Find original here.


Population: 7 sub-populations ↓DECREASING↓



Brief Description

In the midst of an ocean of blue lies, or rather swims, a fair and beautiful creature capable of diving at amazing depths thanks to its soft, compressible shell. Living in seven regional management units, the Leatherback Sea Turtle, or Dermochelys coriacea, has far reaches across the globe (as far north as Alaska and as far south as Africa) yet still remains vulnerable. These sea turtles are characterized by their thin, rubbery shells that allow them to dive down to about 1,280 meters (4,200 feet) below sea level for up to 85 minutes. They are rarely sighted and are mainly observed by scientists on the beaches where females lay their eggs.

Typically, they are about 2 meters (6 feet 6.5 inches) and can weigh from 300 to 500 kilograms (660 to 1,100 lbs). They possess delicate, scissor-like jaws only capable of cutting into jellyfish as any hard substance could injure their jaws, thus they only eat jellyfish and cephlapods. Their shell has seven ridges that make the sea turtles more hydrodynamic when dividing deep underwater. The flexible and long carapace, or the upper shell of a turtle, is dark with pale spots, but the plastron, or the bottom side of a turtle’s shell, is whitish with five ridges. Their powerful front flippers facilitate their deep dives and permit females to migrate on average 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) to their nesting sites.

Between February and August, but especially between March and July, females return generally to the same area they hatched from (within a few kilometers) at night to lay their nests. They will nest around 4-7 times during one season every 2-3 years. For each nest, they may lay around 80 fertilized eggs (the size of billiard balls) with 30 smaller, unfertilized eggs to fool potential predators that dig up the nests. The temperature of the sand determines the sex of the hatchlings as hot sand produces female and cool sand produces males. At 29.5 °C (85.1°F), an equal ratio of males and females are produced. Within 65-80 days later, the hatchlings emerge through the egg and sand to struggle getting to the sea, avoiding leaving during the middle of the day when the sand would burn them. They must survive long enough to grow up as most carnivorous sea creatures prey on them due to their small bodies at a young age. The males will never resurface while the females will once again return and continue their life cycle with reproduction.

Despite the intensive efforts of many people, these beautiful creatures cannot live on this Earth without enduring man-made threats to their existence. One threat to this species is fisheries bycatch as fishing gear designed for other species incidentally harms these turtles. Human pollution can also severely hamper these creatures as Leatherback Sea Turtles mistake plastic bags in the ocean for jellyfish, and females may venture away from beaches during nesting season from the light pollution of nearby cities. Speaking of beaches, construction and drilling along beaches near nesting sites can disrupt their ability to lay their eggs and reproduce. Additionally, climate change has and will impede their ability to reproduce because climate change could ruin potential nesting sites and the sex ratio of the nest by creating more females than males due to the warmer sand.

Currently, one of the biggest threats facing this species is a humanitarian issue around the world: poverty. Impoverished locals of the regions are forced to resort to poaching to put food on their tables by digging up the nesting sites of these turtles and selling the eggs on the black market. Similar to the casques of Helmeted Hornbills, eggs of Leatherback Sea Turtles are considered aphrodisiacs in some cultures and are purchased to be slurped down in accordance. Organizations such as Pacuare observe the nesting sites and hire guards to ward off any poachers nearby.

Written by — Edward Keenan


Fun Facts

  1. They are the only reptiles capable of surviving in temperatures below 40°F (4.4°C)

  2. Leatherback Sea Turtles are an anomaly in the Reptilia family as they do not possess beta-keratin in their modified carapace

  3. They are the only sea turtles to not have a shell as the “leather shell” is actually skin that can bleed if cut

  4. While laying their eggs, the female Leatherback Sea Turtles enter a “trance,” which keeps them tranquil and relaxed

  5. The Spanish word for Leatherback Sea Turtle is baula

  6. They only rest for 0.1% of their day

  7. This turtle is the fastest reptile with a Guiness World Record of 35.28 km/h (21.92 mi/hr) in 1992 but they usually swim 1.8-10.08 km/hr (1.1-6.3 mi/hr)

  8. Only 1 out of 1000 hatchlings survive long enough to see adulthood

  9. Some of these turtles have almost 11 lbs of plastic in their stomachs


How to Help

The Ecology Project International provides the opportunity to young students to attend to research sites like Pacuare and observe the animals including the Leatherback Sea Turtles. Donate to their organization or convince your school to offer this to avid, open-minded students interested in science and/or animals.

The Oceanic Society has created a subdivision of the organization for the preservation of sea turtles like the Leatherback Sea Turtles. Donate or even adopt a turtle.

Pacuare is a ecological center on the Costa Rican beaches that monitors the turtles when laying their eggs to submit to international scientists abroad and defends against poachers with private security. Donate or take the opportunity to visit these sites and work with the field scientists first-hand.

The Leatherback Trust is solely dedicated to reviving the populations of the Leatherback Sea Turtle as they too understand the importance of these majestic animals. Donate or try to infuse some of the knowledge of these sea turtles into the classroom.

The World Wildlife Fund helps support innumerable endangered species, including the Leatherback Sea Turtle. Donate or even adopt a turtle.


Learn More!

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