Status: Critically endangered
Known as: Leatherback Sea Turtle, Lute turtle, trunkback turtle.
Estimated numbers left in the wild: 60,000 (very approximate).
Leatherback sea turtles are the largest turtles in the world, and are fourth in size among all current reptiles. Their body is protected only by leathery, oily skin, rather than a hard shell. The leatherback’s front flippers can grow to a spread of 2.7 meters, and the animal itself measures from 1.8 to 2.2 meters long. These massive turtles weigh 250 to 700 kilograms. The biggest ever found was slightly longer than 3 meters and weighed 916 kilograms.
These turtles are well adapted to colder waters, with the ability to retain body heat, swimming muscles that work at a wide variety of temperatures, and brown fat sheathing much of the body. They can put on bursts of speed up to 35 kilometres per hour, though they usually swim at a more leisurely pace.
Leatherback sea turtles migrate up to 6,000 kilometres to reach their breeding grounds. Female leatherbacks come ashore at night to minimize their exposure to predators and bury clutches of around 80 eggs in the beach sand. If the temperature of the eggs falls below 29.5 C, most of the hatchlings will be male, while high temperatures produce females and an even blend of the sexes occurs when the temperature is close to the 29.5 C mark. Once they are hatched and in the open ocean, male leatherbacks never return deliberately to land, though they may be washed ashore when sick, dead, or caught up in a major storm. Females often return to the same beach their mother used when they are old enough to begin laying eggs.
Location: Leatherback sea turtles prefer the open ocean and only venture into coastal waters for breeding purposes. They are found in all of the world’s major oceans, and are known to venture into Arctic waters where other sea turtles do not go.
Threats: Leatherback sea turtles are less subject to predation by humans than other species because their oily flesh is unpalatable, though a few are caught and eaten by those desperate enough for meat. Nests are raided for eggs in some parts of the world where protective measures are lax or absent. Plastic bags washed into the ocean (or simply dumped in as part of garbage disposal) are a much more immediate threat, since they look like jellyfish. Leatherbacks will eat these bags, possibly resulting in harmful or fatal intestinal blockages. The turtles are also too large to fit through the “turtle excluder” devices fitted to modern fishing nets and may die entangled.
Conservation efforts: Government initiatives and the efforts of organizations like the Leatherback Trust are directed towards protecting these vulnerable animals, including the establishment of protected nesting refuges and efforts to prevent indirect harm by controlling fishing net placement and the like. Local conservation efforts are also occurring in some countries, such as Costa Rica, with donation-funded beach patrols helping to protect nests.
Leatherback Sea Turtle Videos
Oceana is the largest international organization focused only on ocean conservation, protecting marine ecosystems and endangered species such as the Leatherback Sea Turtle.
Sea Turtle Conservancy works to protect the 7 different remaining sea turtle species found in the oceans and their habitats through research, education, training and advocacy.
Wildlife Conservation Society was formed in 1895 with the aim of protecting 25 percent of the world’s biodiversity by promoting the importance of protecting wildlife and their habitats. WCS has five zoos in New York.