Worldwide in tropical to sub-arctic latitudes
Coastal to open ocean; deep diver
Omnivore (preferred food = jellyfish)
Vulnerable To Extinction
Order Testudines (turtles, tortoises and terrapins), Family Dermochelyidae (leatherback sea turtles)
Reaching weights of up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 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, bony carapace (shell). Instead, as its name implies, it has a tough, rubbery shell that is composed of cartilage-like tissues.
Having the widest global distribution of all turtle species, leatherbacks are found in the tropic and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans as far north as Alaska and as far south as New Zealand. Unlike many other reptile species, leatherback turtles are able to maintain warm body temperatures in cold water due to some unique adaptations that allows them to generate and retain body heat, including their large body size, a thick layer of fat and changing their swimming activity. These turtles also 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. This provides them with a major advantage in the extremely cold waters.
Leatherbacks spend almost all of their time in the ocean with females only coming to shore 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. The eggs will incubate approximately two months before leatherback hatchlings emerge from the nest 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 4,000 feet (1,200 m) – which is deeper than any other turtle and most marine mammals. They can also stay underwater for up to 85 minutes.
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 sea 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 sea turtles are also sometimes harvested as food, often caught accidentally in fishing gear, and can be involved in vessel strikes. Marine debris also poses a significant threat to these turtles, as they may ingest balloons, plastic bags and other plastic debris which they can mistake for their preferred food.
1. The leatherback turtle is the largest turtle species in the world.
2. Leatherback turtles are 4.5 to 5.5 feet (1.4 to 1.7 m) long and weigh up to 2,200 pounds (998 kg).
3. Leatherback turtles are the only turtle species in the world that does not have a hard shell and scales.
4. Leatherback turtles are named for their tough skin that resembles rubbery leather.
5. Leatherback turtles have not changed in millions of years and have existed in their current form since the time of the dinosaurs.
6. Leatherback turtles swim over 10,000 miles a year to reach their nesting grounds.
7. Leatherback turtles are expert divers, capable of diving down nearly 4,000 feet (1,219 m) deep.
8. Leatherback turtles can stay underwater for up to 85 minutes.
9. Leatherback turtles have sharp jaws that help tear through their gelatinous prey, such as jellyfish and salps.1
Want to learn more?
Check out KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) from our partners at Sailors For the Sea for free activities that teach children about the ocean.