5 Fascinating Facts About the Leatherback Sea Turtle

The largest of the sea turtles has other distinctions as well

Leatherback sea turtle
Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

The leatherback is the world's largest sea turtle. Read on to find out what these just how big these enormous amphibians grow, what they eat, where they live, and what sets them apart from other sea turtles.

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Leatherbacks are the Largest Sea Turtle

The leatherback sea turtle one of the largest living reptiles (the saltwater crocodile is generally considered the largest) and the largest species of sea turtles. They can grow to over six feet in length and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Leatherbacks are also unique among sea turtles in that instead of a hard carapace, their shell bones are covered by a leather-like, oily "skin." Unlike land turtles, sea turtles (including leatherbacks) can't retract their heads into their shells, which makes them more vulnerable to predators.

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Leatherbacks are the Deepest-Diving Turtle

Capable of reaching depths of close to 4,000 feet, leatherbacks are able to swim alongside some of the deepest diving whales. These extreme dives benefit the turtles in their search for prey and also help them avoid predators and escape excessive heat when swimming in warmer waters. A 2010 study found that leatherbacks likely regulate their rate of buoyancy during deep dives by varying the amount of air they inhale while at the surface.

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Leatherbacks are World Travelers

In addition to being the largest sea turtle, leatherbacks are also the most wide-ranging. They can be found as far north as Newfoundland, Canada, and as far south as South America. As a species, leatherbacks are generally thought of as pelagic (inhabiting the open waters beyond the coastal shelf), but they can also be found in waters closer to shore.

The reason leatherbacks have such a broad range and can be found in so many different environments has to do with an internal counter-current heat exchange system along with large quantities of oil in their bodies that allow them to keep their core temperature higher than that of the surrounding water. These special adaptations allow leatherbacks to tolerate colder conditions other species can't.

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Leatherbacks Feed on Jellyfish and Other Soft-Bodied Creatures

While they might be great in size, leatherbacks' jaws are relatively fragile. As a result, they feed primarily on soft-bodied invertebrates such as jellyfish and tunicates such as salps. Rather than teeth, leatherbacks have sharp beaklike cusps that help them grasp prey and spines (papillae) in their mouth cavities and throats to ensure the animals they eat can enter but not exit once swallowed. Because they keep overabundant jellyfish populations in check, leatherbacks are considered an essential aspect of the marine food chain.

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Leatherbacks are Endangered

Leatherbacks have been listed as an Endangered Species on several conservation organization lists, however, thanks to efforts in both monitoring and education, their status has been upgraded from "critically endangered" to "vulnerable" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of their eating habits, leatherbacks often fall afoul of ​marine debris such as plastic bags and balloons that find their way into the ocean that turtles and other marine animals mistake for prey. While the Atlantic Ocean population appears to be more stable than the Pacific Ocean population, in addition to ingesting manmade debris, ongoing threats to leatherback turtles include:

  • Entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris
  • Egg harvesting
  • Ship strikes
  • Loss of habitat due to development for commercial, industrial, recreational, tourism purposes
  • Habitat shifting and alteration, including temperature extremes and storms, due to global warming
  • Pollution from industrial, commercial, and military waste sources

Fast Facts: How to Help Save the Leatherbacks

With the 2019 rollbacks to America's Endangered Species Act, now more than ever, it's up to us to do all we can to ensure the survival of vulnerable species, including the leatherback turtle. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Reduce the use of plastics, and recycle whenever possible.
  • Dispose of litter responsibly, especially non-recyclable plastics. Be sure to cut up plastic six-pack can/bottle holders into small pieces before disposing of them, and try to shop for products that use photodegradable or biodegradable alternatives.
  • Do not release balloons for any reason. Ditch commemorative balloons and find alternative ways to celebrate that don't harm the environment.
  • Watch out for turtles and other vulnerable animals when boating, water skiing, and jet skiing.
  • Support turtle research, rescue, and rehabilitation organizations.

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