Sea Turtles & Reptiles
Kemp’s Ridley Turtle
Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Atlantic seaboard and parts of the Mediterranean
Coastal to open ocean
Order Testudines (turtles, tortoises and terrapins), Family Cheloniidae (hard shelled sea turtles)
The Kemp’s ridley turtle is the most endangered sea turtle in the world, despite the fact that females of this species nest more often than other animals. Its common name comes from Richard M. Kemp, a Floridian fisherman and naturalist who first submitted the Kemp’s ridley for identification in 1880. Today, the Kemp’s ridley can often be found in nearshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico where males and females have plenty of space for feeding and breeding.
Of the six marine turtle species living in U.S. waters, the Kemp’s ridley is the smallest of them all, coming in at under 30 inches on average and weighing about 100 pounds once fully grown. The Kemp’s ridley is also distinguishable by its almost circular carapace, or shell, that is almost as wide as it is long and appears green on top, but pale yellow on the bottom. Kemp’s ridley turtles primarily eat crabs, but will also prey on fish, jellyfish and small mollusks.
Kemp’s ridley turtles are perhaps most well known for their unique nesting habits. Female Kemp’s ridley turtles come together all at once in what is known as an arribada, which means “arrival” in Spanish. Nearly 95 percent of Kemp’s ridley nesting worldwide occurs in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Nesting is usually between May and July, and females will lay up to three clutches of 100 eggs that must incubate for 50-60 days. Unfortunately, the unique nesting habits of Kemp’s ridley turtles also invite threats to the population. Predators like foxes, weasels, raccoons, dogs and even humans are known to eat exposed eggs on the beaches. Newly emerged hatchlings are also in danger of being snatched by predators as they make their way to the water for the first time.
Kemp’s ridley hatchlings spend up to 10 years in the open ocean before returning inshore to continue developing. Kemp’s ridley turtles occupy “neritic” zones, which contain muddy or sandy bottoms where their preferred prey is plentiful. Even in the ocean, the Kemp’s ridley rarely swims in waters deeper than about 160 feet. They will reach sexual maturity as early as seven years of age or as late as 15, and females will often return to nest on the same beach as they were hatched.
Kemp’s ridley turtles face many threats both on shore and in the ocean, making them critically endangered. Primary threats to Kemp’s ridley survival include incidental capture in fishing gear, or bycatch, egg collection and climate change. Though egg collection has historically been a problem for this species, protections afforded to nesting beaches in 1966 by Mexico has allowed for slight increases in arribada size. In the 1990’s, up to 55,000 loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys were killed each year in shrimp trawls. Since then, better enforcement of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in trawl nets has allowed for a slight comeback of the population, but until there is a fishery-wide requirement, the Kemp’s ridley will likely remain endangered.
Fun Facts About Kemp’s Ridley Turtles
1. The Kemp’s ridley turtle is the most endangered sea turtle species.1
2. The Kemp’s ridley turtle is the smallest sea turtle species.
3. Kemp’s ridley turtles are 24 to 27 inches (61 to 67 cm) long and weigh 100 pounds (45 kg).
4. Unlike other sea turtles, female Kemp’s ridley turtles nest in the daylight.
5. Female Kemp’s ridley turtles come to shore all at once for synchronized nesting, which is referred to as “arribadas” (meaning “arrival” in Spanish).2
6. The Kemp’s ridley turtle is named after Richard M. Kemp, the Florida fisherman who first described the species in 1880, but it’s unclear why “ridley” is part of the name.
7. Kemp’s ridley turtles have jaws with large crushing surfaces that allow them to feed primarily on crabs.3
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