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Marine Animal Encyclopedia

Leatherback Sea Turtle Dermochelys coriacea

The leatherback sea turtle is the world’s largest marine turtle. Its carapace has a rubbery texture, having no hard plates, and has a tapering, pearlike shape. Its head is not retractable, and the leatherback is unique among turtles in having flippers without claws.

It spends most of its life in the open sea, returning to the coast only when it breeds. It feeds on jellyfish and other planktonic animals, and while it gets most of its food near the surface, it can dive to depths of 3,300 ft (1,000 m). Leatherbacks breed mainly in the tropics, on steeply sloping sandy beaches, laying up to nine clutches of eggs in each breeding season.

Unusual for a reptile, the leatherback sea turtle can keep its body warmer than its surroundings, thanks partly to the thick layer of insulating fat beneath its skin. This allows it to wander much more widely than other turtles, reaching as far north as Iceland and almost as far south as Cape Horn. Individuals may roam huge distances—one leatherback tagged off the coast of South America was later found on the other side of the Atlantic, 4,200 miles (6,800 km) away.

Throat spines

The leatherback’s throat contains dozens of backward-pointing spines that prevent jellyfish from escaping before they are completely swallowed. These endangered turtles often die after eating discarded plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish.

Threats

In 1982, scientists estimated that there were 115,000 adult female leatherback sea turtles worldwide. Recent estimates have placed the number between 20,000 and 30,000. The Pacific leatherback is in such severe decline that scientists believe they will become extinct in the Pacific Ocean within the next 30 years unless significant actions are taken to protect them very quickly.

Incidental catch in fishing gear, poaching of their eggs and ingestion of plastics have all contributed to the listing of the leatherbacks as endangered. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has concluded that most leatherback nesting populations in the Pacific have declined more than 80 percent.

In some other areas, leatherback turtle populations are still seriously reduced but doing better. For example, nesting on U.S. beaches along the Atlantic coast has been increasing in recent years.

What Oceana Does

Oceana's campaign to save sea turtles is dedicated to the protection and restoration of sea turtle populations in the world's oceans. The campaign works to reduce sea turtle bycatch in fisheries, protect sea turtle habitat and develop legislation to protect sea turtles.

Leatherback Sea Turtlezoom image
  • Order Chelonia
  • Length 4–6 ft (1.3–1.8 m)
  • Weight Up to 2,000 lb (900 kg)
  • Habitat Open sea
  • Distribution Tropical, subtropical, and temperate waters worldwide
Leatherback Sea Turtle habitat mapzoom image