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Sandy Ripple Blog Post On The Leatherback Sea Turtle

The Leatherback Sea Turtle

June 17, 2018

The Leatherback Sea Turtle

Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea

Appearance & Physical Features

These sea turtles have an unusual look that gives them their common name and makes them very unique.

The Leatherback Sea Turtle carapace (shell) is composed of a layer of thin leather-like skin. It actually looks and feels more like it has a back covered in the skin of a mammal like an Alligator or perhaps a Rhino.

The skin gets its unusual feel from more than one thing. Not only does it have a different texture from most hard turtle’s shells, they have a thick layer of fat underneath the skin that keeps them warmer than the water they are in. The rubbery skin is strengthened by a layer of bony hard plates. 

Leatherback Sea Turtles are the largest of all living turtles and can reach 4-6 feet. They can weigh from 650 to 1100 lbs. They are the fourth heaviest modern reptile with only some crocodiles beating them in this category.

Leatherback Sea Turtle Image: Credit to Claudia Lombard, USFWS

Claudia Lombard, USFWS

Habitat and Diet

To attain and maintain their enormous size, Leatherback Sea Turtles must eat a great deal of protein. They will also ingest other things that are edible and get in the way which helps them boost their caloric intake. They will eat plant material if it is nearby, but their favorite dinners are jellyfish and other marine animals with a similar texture. Leatherbacks have spikes in their mouths and throats so that their slimy meals don’t wriggle away during mealtime. They will also eat almost any other proteins available including fish, squid, sea urchins and more.

Since Leatherbacks have the ability to keep themselves warmer through the layer of oily fat under the skin and their distinctive blood vessels, they can stay in the cold water longer than many other sea turtles. The blood vessels have a countercurrent exchanger structure enabling the turtle to move warmer blood near the surface of their bodies and protect their vital organs and flippers. Since Leatherbacks can endure different temperatures, they can live in almost all oceans. They are found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. 

Predators

Due to their size, adult Leatherback Sea Turtles have few predators other than humans.

Humans represent a major threat to these turtles and there are predators that will pursue baby Leatherbacks.

Like other small marine animals, the babies are sometimes eaten by both sea and shore carnivores and omnivores.

 

 

Breeding and Reproduction

All Leatherback Sea Turtles stay in the sea for their entire lives except for at breeding time.

The males will move near the shore to mate with the females and then the males return to the deeper sea.

Females only move to the beach to nest. She will wait until dark to dig a shallow pit and then lay 100-150 eggs.

Unfortunately, the eggs and the hatchlings are quite vulnerable and not many hatchlings from the nest will make it out to sea.

The breeding grounds are the most problematic area for these turtles.

Development along the beaches and human activities offshore have caused the female turtles to struggle for a safe place to nest.

Some beaches once had thousands of nests every year and now may be lucky to get anywhere near one hundred.

Leatherbacks crawling to the sea. Tinglares arrastrandose hasta el mar

Leatherbacks crawling to the sea.

Ecology

The Leatherback Sea Turtle’s scientific name is Dermochelys coriacea and they are the only living species in this genus and in the entire family Dermochelyidae. This makes them rare and worthy of our protection in addition to their contributions to the ecology of the sea.

Human waste, unfortunately, ruins the entire system that these turtles live in and many adults try to eat water-logged plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish.

The species is in serious danger.

Threats

Besides the issues above, the size of these turtles does not make them immune to the same threats that many other turtles face with fishing gear.

They easily become tangled in nets and line and then drown due to being unable to surface.

It is lucky that the meat of Leatherback Sea turtles has a somewhat oily taste and most humans don’t poach it for food.

Their nesting grounds are in crisis since they are already decimated and human populations coming to the beach for recreation drive the female turtles away with lights, noise, and activity.

The eggs are also common in certain Asian natural remedies and in parts of the world the nests are completely stripped by poachers.

Female turtles along the shoreline are also sometimes killed so that their shells and skins can be sold to tourists or to manufacturers.

The hatchlings are also sometimes confused when they emerge from their shells but are drawn to the white lights in human recreation areas, probably thinking it is the white sea foam reflected in the moonlight. Hatchlings have been found dead after having traveled away from the sea just after they hatch.

leatherback sea turtle hatchling image

Study Of The Leatherback Sea Turtles

Scientists rarely get to study male Leatherback sea turtles since they spend their entire lives at sea. It is known that the males and females both share the ability to stay warmer than most sea turtles and that they both have the characteristic rubbery skin. The adults can live up to 80 years, so the population of adult turtles has so far been higher than that of some other sea turtles. 

Leatherback sea turtle image

The Future of Leatherback Sea Turtles

Many regions now have specific legal protections for these turtles and some even have beach areas that are off-limits to development to allow the turtles a safe place to return and nest. Legal measures often extend to the turtle nests themselves, but since some regions don’t have these protections and even more don’t enforce them, these turtles could become extinct in time.

The fishing industry is arguably the second largest threat to the Leatherbacks that survive as juveniles and make it out to sea. Tens of thousands of turtles die every year and this has been proven by groups that search for their remains. There is also a major issue with soft glow lights that are used to attract fish to the boats, but these lights also look similar to jellyfish. Leatherback Sea Turtles feed day and night and have a hearty appetite, so they will swim too close to these boats and get caught unless regulations are put in place to prevent this from happening.

Our Mission

At Sandy Ripple we believe sea turtles deserve more than confusing plastic bags for food, or getting tangled in fishing nets. What we've done is created a cool way to bring attention to the matter with style.

If you would like to support sea turtles and look cute doing it, shop from our collection by clicking the link.

A portion is donated to sea turtle groups and conservations, while the shirt on your back sends a powerful message.



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