Description: Leatherback sea turtles are the largest
of all living turtles. It is also one of the largest living
reptiles, surpassed only by some species of crocodiles. Adults
range from 53-74 in. (135-189 cm). Leatherbacks typically weigh
between 650 and 1,200 pounds (295-544 kg). The largest leatherback
ever recorded weighed 2,016 pounds. The carapace and plastron
of the leatherback is covered by a smooth, rubbery skin that is
grey-black, dark-blue, or bluish black in color. Patchy spots
of white or pink can appear almost anywhere on the turtle, but
are most common on the plastron, front flippers, and head. Males
have a more concave plastron and longer tails than females. The
cloaca on males extends outside of the shell. In addition to their
enormous size and shell which lacks scutes, leatherbacks can be
distinguished from other sea turtles by the seven longitudinal
ridges on the carapace. The plastron also has five ridges.
Leatherbacks have delicate yet scissor-like jaws for eating soft-bodied
Range and Habitat: The leatherback is a highly pelagic
species and is found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian
oceans. Their primary habitat is the upper reaches of the open
ocean, but they often dive to depths up to 1650 feet in search
of food. These turtles move to coastal waters only during the
breeding season or to follow large concentrations of jellyfish.
In eastern North America, leatherbacks nest in southeastern Florida,
Culebra, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix.
Habits: Leatherbacks feed almost exclusively on jellyfish,
but also eat tunicates and seaweed. The mouth and esophagus have
backward-pointing spines that aid in swallowing jellyfish. Leatherbacks
also have the ability to maintain their body temperature at a
slightly higher temperature than the surrounding water. This feature
allows these turtles to range as far north as Greenland where
water temperature range from 30-40 degrees. Another unique feature
of leatherbacks is that since they have no shell they can dive
to depths over 1000 meters in search of food without succumbing
to the enormous pressure. Leatherbacks nest on sandy beaches in
tropical regions. Females probably nest once every several years.
Because they live in the open ocean, relatively little is known
about the biology of this species.
Conservation Status: The U.S. Federal government has listed
the leatherback as endangered worldwide. Internationally, leatherbacks
are listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union
for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Threats to the
existence of leatherbacks include entanglement in commercial fishing
gear, injury due to propellers, habitat loss of their nesting
environment, and ingestion of marine debris that resembles food
such as plastic that resembles a jellyfish. Recent population
estimates show about 34,000 nesting females worldwide.
James, Michael C. 2004. Body temperatures of leatherback turtles
in temperate waters. Canadian Journal of
Zoology. 82(8): 1302-1306.
Troeng, Sebastian. 2004. Possible decline in leatherback turtle
nesting. Oryx. 38(4): 395-403.
Account Author: Benjamin Morrison, Universtiy of Georgia
- edited by J.D. Willson