American Oceans
large leatherback turtle on the beach

Leatherback Sea Turtle

The leatherback sea turtle, often referred to as the lute turtle or leathery turtle – and known scientifically as Dermochelys coriacea – is a large sea turtle, named for its unique shell.

They are strong swimmers and are capable of swimming over 10,000 miles in a single year, as well as diving down thousands of feet. They have an exceptionally wide population distribution, but although they can be found all over the world, they are still considered an endangered species.

leatherback on the beach at sunset

 

Characteristics & Appearance

Weight & Length

Leatherback sea turtles are the largest living turtle on earth and are the fourth largest reptile, behind only three crocodile species. Their usual length is between 4 and 6 feet from head to tail, and they typically weigh between 660 and 1,100 pounds, although the largest leatherback turtle ever discovered was 10 feet long and weighed over 2,000 pounds.

man next to a large leatherback sea turtle

Physical Characteristics & Color

Leatherback sea urtles are typically dark grey or black in color with small white spots. The most unique and noteworthy physical characteristic of the leatherback turtle is its shell. While other turtles’ shells are made of bone and are therefore hard and dry, the leatherback turtle’s shell is covered in skin, meaning their shell is oily to the touch.

This shell, made of the turtle’s flesh, is where the turtle derives the name leatherback.

Lifespan & Reproduction

Unfortunately, we know very little about leatherback turtles’ lifespan, although most estimates assume they live somewhere up to around 50 years.

Although leatherback turtles mate at sea, the females return to a beach for the nesting period. Unlike most sea turtles, who return to the beach on which they were born to nest, leatherback sea turtles typically pick a new beach for nesting, likely due to the vast distances of their migration.

One female will often mate with more than one male turtle, and her eggs’ fertilization takes place within her body.

baby leatherback sea turtle on the beach

Habitat

Where does the Leatherback Sea Turtle live?

Leatherback turtles live in a wide variety of ocean environments. They can be found as far south as the southern Australian coast and as far north as Alaska. They are found in all tropical and subtropical oceans and can venture as far north as the Arctic Circle.

They can usually be found in the open ocean and can withstand the pressure at lower depths much better than most other animals. They have also shown an ability to hunt in more frigid water than other sea turtles and have been found hunting in near-freezing temperature waters.

They typically avoid coral reefs, although where they go depends heavily on where their prey is. Therefore, in the daytime, they can be found hunting in deeper waters, and at night they are often found in shallower waters. Although they prefer open waters, because nesting takes place on beaches, leatherback sea turtles can also be found near the shoreline.

leatherback entering the ocean

Food & Diet

What does the Leatherback Turtle eat?

Leatherback turtles have frail jaws, which affects their diet. Because their jaws are so weak, they have to subsist on a softer diet, meaning leatherback turtles eat mostly jellyfish. Researchers are often surprised by their diets because leatherback turtles are large and active animals, and jellyfish are not a substantial source of calories or nutrition.

Because jellyfish are mostly made of water, they typically only contain a few grams of protein and provide the predator with a limited amount of calories. Even the largest jellyfish only provide the turtle with approximately one hundred calories, and because leatherback turtles are so large, they have to eat a lot of jellyfish to meet their caloric needs.

leatherback turtle in the water

Threats & Predators

The leatherback turtle faces an array of threats, most of them coming from people or the by-products of human activities, rather than other animals. However, many conservationists worry about leatherback turtles, as estimates suggest that only one out of every thousand hatchlings reaches maturity.

Human Threats

Although humans rarely intentionally hunt leatherback turtles, they often end up as the unfortunate recipient of harm from people. Although fewer leatherbacks are injured by people than other sea turtles, many are struck by boats as they swim up near the surface for breath.

Even though people do not eat leatherback turtles, some are hunted and used as feed for subsistence fisheries. However, people are more likely to collect their eggs for food, as people sometimes consider sea turtle eggs a rare delicacy, especially in Asia.

leatherback sea turtle at night on beach

In addition to these threats, light pollution can also be fatal for young leatherback hatchlings.

When they are born, they are drawn towards light, because normally the light they would see would be over the horizon, as opposed to dark forests or hills away from the sea. However, if, when they hatch, there are artificial sources of light present, they may be attracted to those instead, meaning they never find the ocean.

Climate Change & Global Warming

Because leatherback turtles can adapt to a wide variety of climates, changing temperatures themselves are unlikely to have a devastating impact on these turtles. Unfortunately, many other environmental changes caused by people have had negative impacts on leatherback turtles.

Rising chemical pollution levels in the ocean has led researchers to find high levels of phthalates in the yokes of their eggs. They also have become entangled in the ropes of lobster pots. The most damaging impact has been the introduction of discarded plastic, especially disposable plastic shopping bags, into the ocean environment.

Because leatherback turtles mostly eat soft food, they mistake the floating plastic bags for jellyfish, the primary staple of their diet. These devoured plastic bags can kill the leatherback turtles through either malabsorption or intestinal blockage.

leatherback sea turtle in the sand

Predators

Leatherback sea turtles have very few natural predators, likely due to their size. However, when they are young and small, they are more vulnerable. Shorebirds, such as storks or herons, often prey on the hatchlings as they struggle to get across the beach upon which they are born. As well, before they hatch, mammals and birds will often eat the turtles’ eggs.

Other Threats

Because of their size, leatherback sea turtles are too large to benefit from the turtle excluder devices used by fishermen to avoid turtles being caught within their nets. The result is that hundreds of leatherback turtles are caught by fishermen every year.

Conservation Status

Conservationists consider the leatherback turtle to be vulnerable, and they have been considered endangered in the United States since 1970. Globally, their population is in decline, so people are barred from intentionally causing harm to them.

They are being tracked by satellites to provide data about where they feed, and their marine habitats are often protected in an attempt to ensure that the species does not become critically endangered.

leatherback sea turtle laying eggs in sand

Fun Facts About Leatherback Turtle

  • The leatherback turtle is the largest turtle in the world.
  • The leatherback turtle has been around for thousands of years and have not changed significantly since the time of the dinosaurs.
  • The leatherback turtle can hold their breath for over an hour.
  • The leatherback turtle can dive deeper than any other turtle in the world.
  • The leatherback turtle is the only turtles who have skin over the shells rather than bone.
  • Leatherback turtle eggs are considered aphrodisiacs in various regions of the Caribbean.
  • The leatherback turtle is also often referred to as “luth” or “lute” turtles, which comes from the seven stringed-instrument, the lute, due to the seven ridges that run along the back of the turtle’s shell.
  • The Seri People, who come from Sonoma, a state in Mexico, consider the leatherback turtle one of the world’s five main creators. The legend tells the tale of the Great Flood, after which the leatherback turtle swam to the depths of the oceans to bring the land back up above the water. Because of this, Seri culture considers the leatherback turtle to be sacred, and they have songs in the turtle’s honor.

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