Worldwide in tropical to cold temperate latitudes
Coastal to open ocean; deep diver
Omnivore (preferred food = jellyfish)
Vulnerable To Extinction
Order Chelonii (turtles and tortoises), Family Dermochelyidae (leatherback sea turtles)
Reaching weights of up to 2000 pounds (900 kilos), the leatherback turtle is the largest living turtle on the planet. Unlike all other marine turtles, the leatherback turtle does not have a hard shell. Instead, as its name implies, it has a soft, leathery shell that is composed of cartilage-like tissues.
Leatherback turtles spend almost all of their time in the ocean, and females come to shore only to lay eggs. For that reason, from the time they hatch and enter the surf, males will never be out of the water again and are therefore more difficult to study than females. After mating, females come to shore several times during the course of the nesting season, dig a burrow, and lay typically less than 100 eggs each time. Much of scientists’ knowledge of leatherback turtles is a result of studying the females when they come ashore. After several weeks, the baby leatherback turtles hatch and enter the water together to begin their journey toward adulthood.
Leatherback turtles are known to travel incredibly long distances during their lifetimes. In some cases, individuals may travel across entire ocean basins (e.g., the entire Pacific Ocean), after they hatch, in order to reach juvenile feeding grounds. Throughout its lifetime, a leatherback turtle may cross the ocean several times, traveling to and from preferred feeding or nesting sites. Like other marine turtles, leatherback turtles return to the region where they hatched to mate and nest.
While leatherback turtles are known to eat some plant material and other food, their preferred prey, by far, are jellyfishes and other gelatinous animals. They have specialized spikes in their mouths and throat to ensnare this prey and ensure that it does not escape after the turtle bites it. When foraging, leatherback turtles are known to dive down to nearly 4000 feet (1200 m). Though most turtles are cold blooded, leatherback turtles have a specialized blood vessel structure – called a countercurrent exchanger – that allows them to maintain a body temperature that is higher than the surrounding water. That provides them with a major advantage in the extremely cold waters of the deep sea.
Though the leatherback turtle is vulnerable to extinction, its numbers are actually in better shape than most other sea turtles, which are endangered or worse. The most predominant threats to leatherback turtles occur on nesting beaches. Coastal development has reduced the area where they can successfully nest, dogs and other animals often destroy their nests, and people harvest their eggs for food. Naturally, only one or two of thousands of eggs will make it to adulthood. These added anthropogenic pressures make the chance of survival even worse. Adult leatherback turtles are also sometimes harvested as food and are often caught accidentally in fishing gear (sign our petition to tell President Trump to enforce better protections from trawl nets). Many places around the world offer leatherback turtles some or complete legal protection, but threats to their nesting beaches persist. Legal measures often extend to turtle nests but rarely extend to the beaches themselves, so alteration of natural habitat continues to threaten this and other marine turtles.