Meet the leatherback sea turtle, the giant without a shell

Natural habitat:

Open ocean

Conservation status:

Highly vulnerable

From the warm waters of the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas to the freezing coastlines of Canada and Norway, the leatherback sea turtle has a truly worldwide presence. Classified as a species by Italian naturalist Domenico Agostino Vandelli in 1761, they are the only remaining reptiles from the Cretaceous Period. This means this stunning giant was around to see T-Rex!

Not only are they ancient creatures, they also possess a unique anatomy and physiology. Their most notable feature is their lack of the iconic hard and bony shell that all the other turtles have. Instead, they have the flexible and rubbery leather skin that gives them their name. Their jellyfish-rich diet is due to their delicate jaws that can only chew soft things. Adult turtles reach 1.83–2.2m in length, with a beautiful tear-drop shaped body that has a good hydrodynamic design. Weighing in at a whopping 250-700kg, they are exceptional swimmers and divers who can descend over 1,000 meters in depth and stay underwater for more than an hour. Fast currents? Open ocean? No problem! Leatherbacks tend to swim thousands of kilometers just to nest on a different beach or snack on a particular jellyfish.

Mating happens only within the sea. Females usually nest at intervals of 2-3 years and lay an average of 80 fertilized eggs. When it's time to break out of the egg, hatchlings have to use a special tooth to do it!

Despite their global distribution, leatherbacks are considered highly vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to a number of threats, both natural and man-made. Natural predators include ghost crabs, raccoons, sharks, cephalopods, and shorebirds.The man-made threats range from the ingestion of plastic and marine debris, egg theft, and getting caught in fishing lines and nets. Only about one in a thousand leatherback hatchlings surviving until adulthood. After a rapid population decline in recent decades, countries worldwide have established efforts to preserve the leatherback sea turtles. Measures taken include laws and regulations in Canada that make it illegal to exploit the turtles, the establishment of NGOs in Costa Rica, and dedicated natural parks to protect nest beaches in Gabon, Central Africa.

Did you know?

  • Once a male leatherback enters the sea, it never returns to land.

  • The sex of the hatchlings (baby turtles), depends on the temperature of the nest. Higher temperatures will result in more females, and a lower temperature means more males.

  • The largest leatherback ever recorded was almost 305 cm from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail and weighed in at 916 kg.

  • Leatherback sea turtles are the world’s fastest-moving reptiles. One was featured in the 1992 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records when it was clocked moving 35.28 km/h (21.92 mph).

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