Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

The Leatherback is the world’s heaviest reptile. The largest measured specimen was a male that died after becoming entangled in fishing net in Wales. He weighted 2,015 pounds (916kg) and was 9 feet 7 inches (2.9m) long (Katona et al. 1993). Although this is the extreme, mature leatherbacks frequently measure over 6 feet in length (1.7m) and weigh over 1,000 pounds (454kg).

This amazing size is all the more impressive considering the Leatherbacks main food is about 95% water. They feed on jellyfish, comb jellies and salps which are plentiful in cool temperate waters during the summer. Some of their gelatinous prey is formidable – the Lion’s Mane or Arctic Red Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) can reach 6 feet (1.8m) across. Leatherbacks have adapted a mouth and throat lined with spines that point down the throat to aid in swallowing the jellies. These adaptations make it nearly impossible for them to ‘spit out’ a plastic bag or other accidentally swallowed marine debris.

The Leatherback has 7 ridges that run the length of its carapace (the shell on the turtle’s back). The carapace is not a hard shell like those of other turtles. The Leatherback’s carapace is composed of thousands of tiny bones and leathery tissue covered in skin.

The skin on the carapace, head and tops of the flippers is black with light grey or white spots. The skin on the underside is light coloured with black markings and may be pinkish. The Leatherback’s skin does not have obvious scales like other turtles. The Leatherback has very long front flippers which it uses to migrate thousands of kilometres and dive for food. Leatherbacks are capable of diving to depths around 1,600 feet (488m) in search of jellyfish.

The Leatherback is an open ocean creature; it is the only sea turtle that is found in cold waters, and its global distribution is very large. It occurs almost everywhere except Antarctica. They migrate thousands of miles seasonally to hunt in cool northern waters and breed in warm tropical waters. Leatherbacks are usually seen singly, but small groups have been reported in southern waters. Like other turtles, Leatherbacks come inshore to breed. The females crawl up on sandy beaches to dig a nest and lay their eggs. Western North Atlantic Leatherbacks lay their eggs in the spring on beaches in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Leatherbacks are not hunted as much as other sea turtles as they have no shell and their meat is not edible. Egg collection from nests is a very serious threat, especially in Asia. Leatherbacks are also threatened by accidental entanglement in fishing gear, bycatch in various fisheries, eating marine debris especially plastic bags that look like jellyfish, and by destruction or development of their nesting beaches.

Globally the Leatherback is considered Critically Endangered. All sea turtles are protected in Bermuda’s waters under the Fisheries Act. The Leatherback is also protected as a Level 1 Protected Species under the Protected Species Amendment Act 2011. If you see a Leatherback in Bermuda’s waters, please report your sighting to the Department, along with any photos you may have taken.

Reference:

  • Katona, S.K., V. Rough and D. T. Richardson. 1993. A Field Guide to Whales, Porpoises and Seals from Cape Cod to Newfoundland. 4th ed. Revised. Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • IUCN Red List Page for the Leatherback Turtle http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/6494/0

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