In 1980 there were over 115,000 female leatherback sea turtles in our oceans. Today, less than 25,000 of females swim their way through the Pacific Ocean. These turtles are some of the most beautiful and oldest reptiles on our planet! Read on to learn more about leatherback sea turtles and what makes them so special.
Leatherback Sea Turtle Facts
The scientific name for the leatherback sea turtle is Dermochelys coriacea. It is very different from other sea turtles like the green sea turtle. The leatherback sea turtle is the only species of sea turtle that does not have a hard shell.
The leatherback’s carapace or shell is long and has 7 ridges along the turtle’s length. It is made of a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin. It then has thousands of tiny bone plates that strengthen the shell and make it look like leathery skin. The leatherback’s shell can be dark gray or black with white or pale spots.
The leatherback is the largest sea turtle weighing around 1,000 pounds and 6 feet long.
The front flippers are longer than any other sea turtles, and their back flippers are shaped like paddles. The leatherback sea turtle has excellent eyesight when it is in the water. When it is out of the water, it is near-sighted.
The leatherback sea turtle can be found in all open oceans of the world, including the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. They enjoy tropical waters near Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands when nesting. Something unique about these sea turtles is their ability to regulate their body temperature, which reptiles normally can not do. These turtles are sometimes found in the Atlantic as far as Alaska and Labrador because of this ability!
The leatherback sea turtle can travel long distances within a year, sometimes up to 10,000 miles searching for jellyfish to eat. It can also hold its breath longer than any other sea turtle, just over 7 hours. That’s a long time!
Leatherback turtles are known as “gelatinivores.” Although “gelatinivors” is not an accurate word, it means their main food is invertebrates like jellyfish and sea squirts. The species will, however, eat seaweed, shrimp, and crabs. It will eat around 73% of its body weight daily, about 16,000 calories. They do not need this much to survive. This is about 3-7 times more than they need!
Leatherbacks have sharp, pointed cusps on their jaws. These allow them to pierce and hold onto jellyfish. They also have curving spines called papillae in their mouth and throat. These help them move their prey into their stomach.
The adult leatherback sea turtle does not have many natural predators. The only predator known to try and eat a leatherback sea turtle is a killer whale. But birds, snakes, raccoons, and crabs often eat their eggs and newborns.
Baby Leatherback Sea Turtles
Most female turtles usually return to the same nesting site every year. This action is true for female leatherbacks. They create sandy nests about 30 inches deep. Digging deep into the sand keeps the temperature of the nest cooler. If the nest becomes too hot, it can cause the baby turtles not to hatch.
Due to climate change and global warming, the nests are becoming warmer. Since temperature affects if the eggs will become females or males (warmer nests = female, cooler nests = males), scientists worry there will not be enough male sea turtles to continue growing the population.
They will then lay eggs in this hole. There can be anywhere from 65-115 eggs in each nest. The leatherback egg is the largest of all the sea turtle species. It is 5.3 cm in diameter and weighs about 90g.
After about 45 to 70 days, the baby sea turtles will begin to pip or break out of their shells. They will use cues to find their way to the ocean. These cues include the beach’s slope, the waves’ white crests, and natural light on the horizon. It is challenging to reach the water. Predators, holes, branches, and even sandcastles are obstacles these small turtles encounter on their way to the water.
Once they reach the water, the turtles will not be seen for almost a decade. They face other predators in the water such as sharks and big fish. The young turtles will then return to the coastal areas, where they will forage and continue to grow.
Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles
In 1970, the Leatherback sea turtles were classified as an endangered species and are labeled as vulnerable. They are the most endangered of all of the species of sea turtles.
The biggest threats to these turtles are caused by humans. The turtles often get caught in fishing nets and are unable to free themselves to get air. Another human activity causing habitat loss for sea turtles is coastal development.
Leatherbacks are also threatened by ocean pollution and marine debris. They often mistakenly eat plastic bags in the ocean because they resemble jellyfish. These bags can cause blockage in the turtles. They may not be able to eat and starve to death. If they do survive, plastic makes turtles unnaturally float and this may stop their growth and reproduction rates.
There are some things we can do to help the leatherback sea turtles:
- Participate in coast clean-ups and reduce plastic use.
- Use reusable water bottles and shopping bags.
- Keep nesting beaches safe and dark.
- Fill in holes, and knock down sandcastles before leaving the beach.
Fun Facts About Leatherbacks
Here are some interesting facts about leatherback sea turtles you will enjoy!
- The leatherback can not retract into its shell-like many land turtles.
- They can live up to 50 years.
- The Leatherback sea turtle has a thick layer of fat to allow them to dive into deep water.
- Turtles have been around for around 100 million years.
Leatherback sea turtles are some of the most unique sea turtles! Learning all about these turtles can help save them and other turtle species that are endangered. We can all do our part to make sure leatherbacks are around for another 100 million years!