The leatherback sea turtle has roamed our earth for more than a hundred million years but is now unfortunately on the brink of extinction.
About the Leatherback Sea Turtle
The leatherback sea turtle is the biggest turtle (both in and out of the ocean) in the world. It is also the only sea turtles with a soft, rather than hard shell.
They are not only the largest of all turtles, but they are also the most migratory. This is because they regularly cross entire oceans to both feed and nest.
They have an estimated population of between 34,000 to 36,000 females, down from more than 100,000 just thirty years ago.
Common Name: Leatherback
Type of Eater: Omnivore
Size & Weight: 2 m / 900 kg (huge!)
Distribution: Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans
Unique Features: Only soft-shelled sea turtle
The leatherback weighs up to 2,000 lbs (900 kg) and can reach lengths of up to 6.5 feet (2 m). This makes the leatherback one insanely large turtle!
They have a mostly black shell with pink-white blotches on their plastron (underbelly).
Their black shell has seven ridges or keels that run vertically over its length. These ridges are made of very flexible material which is elastic but durable. This makes their skin feel quite rubbery.
Their clawless flippers are absolutely huge, in fact, leatherbacks have the largest flippers proportionally of any other sea turtle, which probably alludes to the fact that is the only sea turtle capable of crossing such extreme distances when migrating.
Able to dive to depths of more than 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), leatherbacks are able to also remain underwater for nearly an hour and a half when active, much longer than any other sea turtle.
Leatherbacks are what are known as pelagic animals, that is, they spend the majority of their lives in the open ocean.
They are the most migratory of all sea turtles, regularly crossing entire oceans to forage for food and to nest.
Leatherbacks have a very unique thermoregulatory adaptation that allows them to survive and thrive in cold waters. This adaptation helps them much more than their sea-faring cousins such as the loggerhead.
Their global population is made up of seven subpopulations found in different parts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
This is in stark contrast to the leatherback’s other sea turtle cousins, who slow down drastically as the ocean water temperature drops.
Leatherbacks tend to nest every two to three years, laying around 80-100 fertilized and unfertilized eggs at a time.
They can nest multiple times however during those seasons. It typically takes a good 60 to 70 days for their eggs to incubate and hatch.
Leatherbacks are currently listed as an endangered species, with several of their subpopulations in places in and around the Indian and Pacific Oceans as hanging on the precipice of extinction, having lost some 97% of their previous numbers.
Over-harvesting of their eggs, as well as environmental damage, are the main causes of the collapse of their numbers. They have a counter-current heat exchange system, as well as having a large size and higher oil content that allows them to maintain higher internal body temperatures independent of their outside environment.
One of the more unique features of the leatherback sea turtle is its diet.
They love to feed primarily on jellyfish and salps.
They do not possess the crushing jaws of other chelonians. Instead, their sharp-edged jaws are more suited towards consuming gelatinous, soft prey.
Their throats are covered in backward-pointing spines that help move soft prey such as jellyfish down their throats and into their stomachs.