Leatherback

A leatherback returns to sea after nesting.
A leatherback nest was recorded at Padre Island National Seashore in 2008.  Leatherback nesting was also recorded here in the 1920s and 1930s. NPS Photo.
The Leatherback Sea Turtle
Species: Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
Size: Adult carapace (upper shell) length = 48-96 inches (121-244 cm) (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2015)
Adult weight = 500-2,000 pounds (227-907 kg) (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2015)
Coloration: Hatchlings and adults are primarily black with some pinkish-white spotting; the carapace (upper shell) has a leathery appearance with 7 longitudinal (lengthwise) ridges; hatchlings have white striping on these ridges and on the edges of their flippers (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)
Range: Nesting – In the Pacific, the largest remaining nesting assemblages are in Northern South America, New Guinea, Papua New Guinea, West Africa’s Solomon Islands, Mexico, and Costa Rica; in the Atlantic, the largest nesting colonies are Gabon in Africa and French Guiana; in the U.S., nesting occurs in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and southeastern Florida (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)
Non-nesting – The leatherback has the widest global distribution of all reptile species; it occurs worldwide in tropical and temperate open ocean and coastal waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans; small numbers are found as far north as British Columbia, Newfoundland, and the British Isles, and as far south as Australia, Cape of Good Hope, and Argentina (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)
Diet: Jellyfish and other similar, soft-bodied animals (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)
Lifespan: Unknown; age at sexual maturity unknown
Status: Federally endangered
Nesting season: Nesting can occur from February to July; females nest every 2-3 years and lay 5-7 clutches (nests) in one nesting season; each nest contains an average of 100 eggs that take about 2 months to hatch (National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1992)
Historic population: Early historic population levels are unknown; in 1982, an estimated 115,000 females existed in the global population, with about half of all females nesting in Pacific Mexico (National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1992)
Lowest population: Unknown
Current population: Current population sizes are not well known in most areas; in Florida, number of nests found at core index nesting beaches ranged from 27 to 641 in 2014 (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)
Population trends: The global population of leatherbacks is estimated to have declined 40% over the past 3 generations; Pacific populations have declined 80-97% over that time; the Eastern Pacific population that nests in Mexico – once considered the world’s largest leatherback nesting population – is now less than 1% of the size it was in 1980; Atlantic populations are smaller but are generally increasing (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)
Reasons for decline: Historic and ongoing direct harvest of eggs, juveniles, and adults; historic and ongoing incidental capture in fishing gear (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)
Current threats: Direct harvest of eggs, juveniles, and adults; incidental capture in fishing gear; degradation of nesting and marine habitats (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)

FUN AND FASCINATING FACTS about the Leatherback:
  • Throw your weight around! The leatherback is the largest turtle and one of the largest living reptiles in the world. One male leatherback, found on the coast of Wales in 1998, weighed over a ton (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)!
  • Deep diving flexibility! The leatherback is very different from other sea turtles. It is the only sea turtle without a hard, bony shell. Its carapace (upper shell) is composed of a mosaic of small, loosely interlocking bones covered by a 1 ½ inch (4 cm) thick layer of rubbery, oil-saturated tissue. Their slightly flexible shell enables the leatherback’s shell to withstand the extreme pressure of the deep ocean waters. (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2015).
  • Hold your breath! Leatherbacks are deep sea divers and can reach depths of over 4,000 feet and hold there breathe for more than an hour (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015)!
  • Cold-blooded? Leatherbacks, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded (ectothermic) and can be dramatically affected by surrounding temperatures. The leatherback has several adaptations allowing it to withstand cold temperatures. It has a counter-current heat exchange system that helps prevent heat loss. Its body has a high oil content providing insulation. Its large body size helps keep its core warm. In combination, these mechanisms keep the leatherback’s core body temperature higher than the surrounding water (National Marine Fisheries Service 2015).
  • Slippery when wet…. Leatherbacks specialize in eating jellyfish and other soft-bodied creatures of the open ocean. They have sharp-edged jaws and pointed tooth-like cusps for grabbing and slicing jellyfish. To help hold onto slippery jellyfish, the leatherback has backward-pointing spines lining its mouth and throat (National Marine Fisheries Service 2011). It is amazing such a large animal can survive on just a slimy blob of jelly!

Literature Cited:
National Marine Fisheries Service. 2015. Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) species page. Retrieved from http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/leatherback.htm
National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1992. Recovery Plan for Leatherback Turtles in the U.S. Caribbean, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. National Marine Fisheries Service, Washington, D.C.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2015. Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) species page. Retrieved from http://www.ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile?spcode=C00F

Last updated: December 6, 2018

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