This species is believed to be in serious decline. Populations of nesting females in the Pacific have declined as much as 70-80% in the last decade, and the status of the Atlantic population is unclear. Because females may nest on more than one beach each year, accurate counts are more difficult than for some other turtle species. The species is rated "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN, and "Endangered" by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It has been listed in Appendix I of the CITES, making any international trade illegal.
The primary threat to the species is commercial fishing: turtles accidentally trapped and drowned in nets and trawls, or hooked or tangled by longlines and trap lines. Harvesting of eggs is a significant problem as well. Also, leatherbacks apparently sometimes eat plastic debris they find in the water, probably mistaking it for jellyfish. This plastic debris is indigestible, and an increasing number of turtles are found dead with blocked digestive tracts.
Nature reserves have been established in the coastal areas where the turtles come to breed to prevent people from stealing the eggs. In some areas, scientists have taken the eggs into captive breeding programs to try to increase the population of the area. Some governments require use of turtle-exclusion devices on fishing gear, but this is not a widespread practice.
In July of 2004, the “Marine Turtle Conservation Act” was signed into law in the United States. The purpose of this bill was to aid in the conservation of marine turtles, as well as to assist foreign countries in preserving their nesting habitats. To support this bill there are hopes of creating a “Multinational Species Conservation Fund” to support conservation of imperiled marine turtles, including the leatherback.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: critically endangered
Hatching success of clutches is about 50% in an undisturbed nest. Many nests are destroyed by many different predators. Nest temperature determines the hatchlings' sex. At 29.5 degrees Celsius hatchlings are equally likely to be male or female, hatchlings incubated at 28.75°C or less will be male, above 29.75°C they'll be female. Hatchling turtles weigh 35-50 grams, and grow very fast. Leatherbacks may be the fastest growing reptile in the world, reaching adult size in 7 - 13 years.
Development - Life Cycle: temperature sex determination
This species does not harm humans or cause significant costs. It's flesh is sometimes toxic to humans and other animals, perhaps due to toxins ingested as part of its diet of jellyfish.
Negative Impacts: injures humans (poisonous )
Although the flesh of adult leatherbacks can sometimes be toxic, adults and eggs are used for food in some locations, and in a few places the oil from the bodies of adults is extracted for medicinal use and as a waterproofing agent.
Leatherbacks eat jellyfish that are pests for swimmers and fishermen, especially for marine fish-farming. Consumption estimates vary, one study estimated that adult leatherbacks probably eat about 1000 kg of jellyfish per year, an earlier study estimated 2900-3650 kg/yr.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material
Leatherback sea turtles are predators that eat mainly jellyfish and other soft-bodied marine animals. Their affect on prey population densities is unknown, but might have been substantial before their populations were reduced by harvesting.
Leatherback eggs and hatchlings may be a significant food source for egg predator populations near their nesting beaches.
Leatherbacks are the host of Conchoderma virgatum, a commensal species of barnacle.
Leatherback turtles are carnivores that feed in the open ocean. Their main prey are gelatinous invertebrates, mainly jellyfish and salps. They are known to eat other kinds of food though, including small crustaceans and fish (possibly symbiotes with jellies), cephalopods, sea urchins, and snails.
Leatherbacks do not have the powerful muscles and hard crushing jaw apparatus that some other sea turtles have for eat hard-shelled prey. Instead they have sharp-edged jaws for biting soft-bodied prey. The esophagus in this species is lined with short spines that point downstream, preventing jellies from escaping once swallowed.
Animal Foods: fish; mollusks; aquatic or marine worms; aquatic crustaceans; echinoderms; cnidarians; zooplankton
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats other marine invertebrates)
Leatherbacks are primarily pelagic animals. They travel great distances from their nesting beaches to their feeding grounds. Although leatherbacks are most often found in tropical waters, they are distributed around the globe in temperate oceans, and even on edges of subarctic water. The leatherback sea turtle travels further north than any other sea turtle. They live in Northern Atlantic waters as far north as Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Labrador. They also inhabit South Atlantic Waters, as far south as Argentina and South Africa. This turtle inhabits waters as far east as Britain and Norway.
During the nesting season they are discovered along the coasts of French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad, Gabon, West Africa, Parque Marino Las Baulas in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Thailand, in the U.S. on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and in Puerto Rico and Florida. The largest nesting colony is in Africa, along the coast of French Guiana. More than 7,000 females laid as many as 50,000 eggs there in 1988 and again in 1992. There is one nesting record in Cape Lookout, North Carolina.
Biogeographic Regions: oceanic islands (Native ); indian ocean (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )
Leatherback sea turtles live in many different oceans throughout the world. They are widely known as pelagic animals but are seen in coastal waters when searching for food. They live in tropical, temperate and even some subarctic oceans. They have been discovered in waters as deep as 1230 m, well below the photic zone.
Leatherbacks lay their eggs in the sand of tropical beaches. It is the only time they emerge onto land, and only the females do so.
Range depth: 1230 (high) m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; saltwater or marine
Aquatic Biomes: pelagic ; coastal
Other Habitat Features: intertidal or littoral
We have no information on the lifespan of Dermochelys coriacea.
Status: captivity: 30 years.
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest of living turtles. It may reach a length of ca. 2.13 m. Adults may have a span of ca. 2.7 m from the tip of one front flipper to the tip of the other. They have a secondary palate, formed by vomer and palatine bones. The leatherback has no visible shell. The shell is present but it consists of bones that are buried into its dark brown or black skin. It has seven pronounced ridges in its back and five on the underside. Leatherback hatchlings look mostly black when looking down on them, and their flippers are margined in white. Rows of white scales give hatchling leatherbacks the white striping that runs down the length of their backs.
These turtles feed in waters that are far colder than other sea turtles can tolerate. They have a network of blood vessels that work as a counter-current heat exchanger, a thick insulating layer of oils and fats in their skin, and are able to maintain body temperatures much higher than their surroundings.
Range mass: 250 to 900 kg.
Range length: 145 to 160 cm.
Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; heterothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger
In modern times, humans have become the primary predator of this species, gathering eggs and killing adults.
Leatherback turtles eggs are consumed by a large variety of predators, including ghost crabs (Ocypode), monitor lizards (Varanus), wading birds such as turnstones (Arenaria), knots (Calidris), and plovers Pluvialis). Many mammals excavate nests as well, including raccoons (Procyon lotor) and coatis (Nasua), dogs (Canis), genets (Genetta), mongooses (Herpestidae) and pigs (Suidae). Most of these same predators will take hatchlings as the little turtles race for the sea, as will raptors (Falconiformes), gulls (Larus), and frigate birds (Fregatidae). In the ocean, small leatherbacks are attacked by cephalopods, requiem sharks (Carcharhinidae) and other large fish. Adult leatherbacks are large and powerful enough to have few predators, but jaguars (Panthera onca) and other large predators may attack nesting females, and killer whales (Orcinus orca) and large sharks may attack them at sea.
Nesting females pack the sand over their clutch of eggs, perhaps to obscure the scent of the eggs and make them harder for small predators to dig up. Hatchlings wait until nightfall to emerge and head for the water, to avoid predators. Throughout their lives leatherbacks are counter-shaded, dark on the dorsal surface and light underneath, to better blend with background light (though the dark dorsal surface is probably also better for basking).
Although they don't have the bony shell of most turtles, they do have a thick layer of connective tissue over bony plates covering much most of their body. Leatherbacks are strong and fast swimmers, and adults may defend themselves aggressively. One adult (c. 1.5 m long) was seen chasing a shark that had apparently attacked it, and once the shark fled, the turtle attacked the boat that the observers were in.
The male leatherback turtles will migrate just offshore a common nesting beach generally before nesting season begins. There they will try and mate with as many females as possible. Also, studies have shown that the males will return to the same nesting beach if they were successful in the previous season.
Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)
Leatherback sea turtles mate in the water, just offshore from the females' desired nesting beach. The female then swims ashore at night to nest and will produce a clutch of usually 50 - 170 eggs. However, a large percentage of those eggs are yolkless and will not develop further. The female will lay her eggs and then cover the nest with sand to discourage predation and moderate the temperature and humidity around the eggs. After the female has completed this process she will returns to the ocean. Male leatherback sea turtles never swim to shore and have no part in the nesting process.
Breeding interval: Leatherback Sea Turtles will lay about 5 to 7 nests per year, renesting every 9 to 10 days. Also, they will return to the same nesting location every 2 to 3 years.
Breeding season: They generally reproduce between the months of April and November.
Range number of offspring: 50 to 70.
Range gestation period: 55 to 75 days.
Average time to independence: immediate (no parental investment past egg-laying) minutes.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 5 to 21 years.
Key Reproductive Features: semelparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization ; oviparous
Average number of offspring: 105.
The only parental investment that occurs with leatherback sea turtles is when the female lays eggs on the shore and covers her nest after laying the eggs. No subsequent parental care occurs.
Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female)
Feeds largely on jellyfish and is capable of making dives as deep as 1,000 m below sea surface.
A distinctive, unique species; the largest of all marine turtles, reaching 1,800 mm in carapace length, 2,770 mm between forelimb tips. Carapace and plastron leathery, without horny plates;carapace depressed, elongate, with 7 longitudinal ridges, posterior edge smooth, ending with a narrow, pointed extensioover the tail. Plastron with 5 longitudinal ridges. Head relatively small; upper jaw with two tooth-like projections. Front limbs very long, with no claws. Not much difference in size between sexes, but males have longer tails. Color of carapace and dorsal sides of limbs and head blackish or bluish black with irregular whitish spots. Ventral sides pinkish white with some dark spots.
Essentially a vagrant to Egyptian waters, not known to breed in or near Egypt. It has been recorded several times from Egyptian territory in both the Mediterranean and Red Sea. From the Mediterranean Flower (1933) reports a large individual from the Alexandria market, but was not sure of its capture locality. Baha El Din (1992) reports 3 dead animals found on the shore at Zaranik and El Arish. Clarke et al. (2000) reports a further dead individual found on the beach at Rafah in 1998. In the Red Sea Werner (1973) reports the species from Nuweiba and south of Abu Rudeis. Frazier and Salas (1984) report 2 old specimens found in the vicinity of Hurghada, which were in the Hurghada Marine Biological Station in the early 1980s.
Circum-global, more readily entering colder waters than any other marine turtle. Although this species largely nests within the trop¬ics, it ranges widely into subtropical and temperate waters, even reaching the Arctic Circle.
Highly pelagic, spending much of its life far offshore, but often also close to shore.
The Niger Coastal Delta is an enormous classic distributary system located in West Africa, which stretches more than 300 kilometres wide and serves to capture most of the heavy silt load carried by the Niger River at is mouth on the Atlantic. The peak discharge at the mouth is around 21,800 cubic metres per second in mid-October. The Niger Delta coastal region is arguably the wettest place in Africa with an annual rainfall of over 4000 millimetres. Vertebrate species richness is relatively high in the Niger Delta, although vertebrate endemism is quite low. The Niger Delta swamp forests occupy the entire upper coastal delta. Historically the most important timber species of the inner coastal delta was the Abura (Fleroya ledermannii), a Vulnerable swamp-loving West African tree, which has been reduced below populations viable for timber harvesting in the Niger Delta due to recent over-harvesting of this species as well as general habitat destruction of the delta due to the expanding human population here. Other plants prominent in the inner coastal delta flood forest are: the Azobe tree (Lophira alata), the Okhuen tree (Ricinodendron heudelotii ), the Bitter Bark Tree (Sacoglottis gabonensis), the Rough-barked Flat-top Tree (Albizia adianthifolia), and Pycnanthus angolensis. Also present in its native range is the African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis).
Some of the reptiles found in the upper coastal Niger Delta are the African Banded Snake (Chamaelycus fasciatus); the West African Dwarf Crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis, VU); the African Slender-snouted Crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus); the Benin Agama (Agama gracilimembris); the Owen's Chameleon (Chamaeleo oweni); the limited range Marsh Snake (Natriciteres fuliginoides); the rather widely distributed Black-line Green Snake (Hapsidophrys lineatus); Cross's Beaked Snake (Rhinotyphlops crossii), an endemic to the Niger Basin as a whole; Morquard's File Snake (Mehelya guirali); the Dull Purple-glossed Snake (Amblyodipsas unicolor); the Rhinoceros Viper (Bitis nasicornis). In addition several of the reptiles found in the outer delta are found within this inner coastal delta area.
There are a number of notable mammals present in the inner coastal delta, including the Near Threatened Olive Colobus (Procolobus verus) that is restricted to coastal forests of West Africa and is found here in the inner coastal Niger Delta. Also found here is the restricted distribution Mona Monkey (Cercopithecus mona), a primate often associated with rivers. Also occurring here is the limited range Black Duiker (Cephalophus niger), a near-endemic to the Niger River Basin. In addition, the Endangered Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is found in the Niger Delta. The near-endemic White-cheeked Guenon (Cercopithecus erythrogaster, VU) is found in the inner coastal delta. The Critically Endangered Niger Delta Red Colubus (Procolobus pennantii ssp. epieni), which primate is endemic to the Niger Delta is also found in the inner coastal delta.
Five threatened marine turtle species are found in the mangroves of the lower coastal delta: Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea, EN), Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta, EN), Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea, EN), Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretomychelys imbricata, CR), and Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas, EN).
Other reptiles found in the outer NIger Delta are the Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), African Softshell Turtle (Trionyx triunguis), African Rock Python (Python sebae), Boomslang Snake (Dispholidus typus), Cabinda Lidless Skink (Panaspis cabindae), Neon Blue Tailed Tree Lizard (Holaspis guentheri), Fischer's Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus fischeri), Richardson's Leaf-Toed Gecko (Hemidactylus richardsonii), Spotted Night Adder (Causus maculatus), Tholloni's African Water Snake (Grayia tholloni), Smith's African Water Snake (Grayia smythii), Small-eyed File Snake (Mehelya stenophthalmus), Western Forest File Snake (Mehelya poensis), Western Crowned Snake (Meizodon coronatus), Western Green Snake (Philothamnus irregularis), Variable Green Snake (Philothamnus heterodermus), Slender Burrowing Asp (Atractaspis aterrima), Forest Cobra (Naja melanoleuca), Rough-scaled Bush Viper (Atheris squamigera), and Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus).
There are a limited number of amphibians in the inner coastal delta including the Marble-legged Frog (Hylarana galamensis). At the extreme eastern edge of the upper delta is a part of the lower Niger and Cross River watersheds that drains the Cross-Sanaka Bioko coastal forests, where the near endemic anuran Cameroon Slippery Frog (Conraua robusta) occurs.
Populations of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in the eastern Pacific have declined by more than 90% during the past two decades, primarily due to unsustainable egg harvest and fisheries bycatch mortality (Shillinger et al. 2008 and references therein). To better understand habitat use and migration patterns of these turtles, Shillinger et al. (2008) undertook a multi-year satellite tracking study and identified a very consistent migration corridor. They suggest that their data will facilitate the identification of potential areas for mitigating fisheries bycatch interactions in the eastern South Pacific.
Climate change is likely to affect Leatherback Turtles in at least three important ways (IUCN 2009):
(1) Increasing feminization:
Average global temperatures are predicted to increase by at least 2°C in the next 40 years due to climate change. This temperature increase could have serious consequences for Leatherbacks, as well as for other species whose sex is determined by embryonic temperature. The predicted outcome of this change (barring significant adaptation of the sex determination system or nesting behavior) is an increase in the number of females relative to males in Leatherback populations, which could threaten the stability of these populations. Increases in temperature have also been shown to lead to hatchling abnormalities and developmental and other health problems in young Leatherbacks (IUCN 2009).
(2) Beach erosion:
Ocean levels are thought to have risen at an average rate of 1.8 mm per year since 1961 and are predicted to rise even more rapidly in the future. Increases in storm frequency and severity have also been predicted. This is likely to lead to increased beach erosion and degradation, which could wash away turtle nests and decrease nesting habitat in the longer term. While some climate change adaptation measures, such as sea walls, help mitigate sea level rise impacts on human populations, their increased construction is likely to further reduce the availability of Leatherbacks’ nesting habitat in the future (IUCN 2009).
(3) Dispersal and food availability:
Ocean currents are important for both juvenile and adult Leatherbacks. Juveniles use them to aid dispersal following hatching and adults use them as navigational aids. Thus, changes in currents could have a major impact on Leatherback populations. Altered currents are also likely to affect the abundance and distribution of jellyfish and other Leatherback prey species. Although climate change impacts on ocean currents are likely, the nature of these changes, and hence their effects on Leatherbacks, remains uncertain (IUCN 2009).
There is some hope that Leatherbacks may be able to adapt behaviorally to the changing climate. While females are known to return to the same region--and perhaps even nesting beach--to nest each year, Leatherbacks are nevertheless among the most flexible turtle species in their nest site choice. Over time, the Leatherback's flexibility may allow them to modify their nesting site choices to select more favorable areas (in fact, northward extensions of both nesting and feeding areas have already been noted for this species). For this to be possible, however, potentially suitable beaches need to be available in more favorable areas. Coastal developments and pressures from humans have already rendered many possible sites unsuitable, and increasing sea wall development and beach erosion are likely to further reduce beach availability.
As is the case for many other vulnerable species, the ability of the Leatherback to adapt to climate change may be challenged by other threats it faces, including active harvesting by humans, accidental capture by fisheries, coastal development, and mistaken consumption by Leatherbacks of plastic debris. Such ongoing threats are likely to make the Leatherback less resilient to
additional pressures such as climate change.
The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), sometimes called the lute turtle or leathery turtle or simply the luth, is the largest of all living turtles and the heaviest non-crocodilian reptile. It is the only living species in the genus Dermochelys and family Dermochelyidae. It can easily be differentiated from other modern sea turtles by its lack of a bony shell; instead, its carapace is covered by oily flesh and flexible, leather-like skin, for which it is named.
Domenico Agostino Vandelli named the species first in 1761 as Testudo coriacea after an animal captured at Ostia and donated to the University of Padua by Pope Clement XIII. In 1816, French zoologist Henri Blainville coined the term Dermochelys. The leatherback was then reclassified as Dermochelys coriacea. In 1843, the zoologist Leopold Fitzinger put the genus in its own family, Dermochelyidae. In 1884, the American naturalist Samuel Garman described the species as Sphargis coriacea schlegelii. The two were then united in D. coriacea, with each given subspecies status as D. c. coriacea and D. c. schlegelii. The subspecies were later labeled invalid synonyms of D. coriacea.
Both the turtle's common and scientific names come from the leathery texture and appearance of its carapace (Dermochelys coriacea literally translates to "Leathery Skin-turtle"). Older names include "leathery turtle" and "trunk turtle". The common names incorporating "lute" and "luth" compare the seven ridges that run the length of the animal's back to the seven strings on the musical instrument of the same name. But probably more accurately derived from the lute's ribbed back which is in the form of a shell.
Relatives of modern leatherback turtles have existed in relatively the same form since the first true sea turtles evolved over 110 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. The dermochelyids are relatives of the family Cheloniidae, which contains the other six extant sea turtle species. However, their sister taxon is the extinct family Protostegidae that included other species that did not have a hard carapace.
Leatherback turtles have the most hydrodynamic body design of any sea turtle, with a large, teardrop-shaped body. A large pair of front flippers powers the turtles through the water. Like other sea turtles, the leatherback has flattened forelimbs adapted for swimming in the open ocean. Claws are absent from both pairs of flippers. The leatherback's flippers are the largest in proportion to its body among extant sea turtles. Leatherback's front flippers can grow up to 2.7 m (8.9 ft) in large specimens, the largest flippers (even in comparison to its body) of any sea turtle.
The leatherback has several characteristics that distinguish it from other sea turtles. Its most notable feature is the lack of a bony carapace. Instead of scutes, it has thick, leathery skin with embedded minuscule osteoderms. Seven distinct ridges rise from the carapace, crossing from the cranial to caudal margin of the turtle's back. Leatherbacks are unique among reptiles in that their scales lack β-keratin. The entire turtle's dorsal surface is colored dark grey to black, with a scattering of white blotches and spots. Demonstrating countershading, the turtle's underside is lightly colored. Instead of teeth, the leatherback turtle has points on the tomium of its upper lip, with backwards spines in its throat (esophagus) to help it swallow food and to stop its prey from escaping once caught.
D. coriacea adults average 1–1.75 m (3.3–5.7 ft) in curved carapace length (CCL), 1.83–2.2 m (6.0–7.2 ft) in total length, and 250 to 700 kg (550 to 1,540 lb) in weight. In the Caribbean, the mean size of adults was reported at 384 kg (847 lb) in weight and 1.55 m (5.1 ft) in CCL. Similarly, those nesting in French Guiana, weighed an average of 339.3 kg (748 lb) and measured 1.54 m (5.1 ft) in CCL. The largest verified specimen ever found was discovered on the Pakistani beach of Sandspit and measured 213 cm (6.99 ft) in CCL and 650 kg (1,433 lb) in weight. A previous contender, the "Harlech turtle", was purportedly 256.5 cm (8.42 ft) in CCL and 916 kg (2,019 lb) in weight, however recent inspection of its remains housed at the National Museum Cardiff have found that its true CCL is closer to 1.5 m (4.9 ft), casting doubt on the accuracy of the claimed weight, as well. On the other hand, one scientific paper has claimed that the species can weigh up to 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) without providing more verifiable detail. The leatherback turtle is scarcely larger than any other sea turtle upon hatching, as they average 61.3 mm (2.41 in) in carapace length and weigh around 46 g (1.6 oz) when freshly hatched.
D. coriacea exhibits several anatomical characteristics believed to be associated with a life in cold waters, including an extensive covering of brown adipose tissue, temperature-independent swimming muscles, countercurrent heat exchangers between the large front flippers and the core body, and an extensive network of countercurrent heat exchangers surrounding the trachea.
Leatherbacks have been viewed as unique among extant reptiles for their ability to maintain high body temperatures using metabolically generated heat, or endothermy. Initial studies on their metabolic rates found leatherbacks had resting metabolisms around three times higher than expected for reptiles of their size. However, recent studies using reptile representatives encompassing all the size ranges leatherbacks pass through during ontogeny discovered the resting metabolic rate of a large D. coriacea is not significantly different from predicted results based on allometry.
Rather than using a high resting metabolism, leatherbacks appear to take advantage of a high activity rate. Studies on wild D. coriacea discovered individuals may spend as little as 0.1% of the day resting. This constant swimming creates muscle-derived heat. Coupled with their countercurrent heat exchangers, insulating fat covering, and large size, leatherbacks are able to maintain high temperature differentials compared to the surrounding water. Adult leatherbacks have been found with core body temperatures that were 18 °C (32 °F) above the water in which they were swimming.
Leatherback turtles are one of the deepest-diving marine animals. Individuals have been recorded diving to depths as great as 1,280 m (4,200 ft). Typical dive durations are between 3 and 8 minutes, with dives of 30–70 minutes occurring infrequently.
They are also the fastest-moving non-avian reptiles. The 1992 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records lists the leatherback turtle moving at 35.28 km/h (21.92 mph) in the water. More typically, they swim at 1.80–10.08 km/h (1.12–6.26 mph).
The leatherback turtle is a species with a cosmopolitan global range. Of all the extant sea turtle species, D. coriacea has the widest distribution, reaching as far north as Alaska and Norway and as far south as Cape Agulhas in Africa and the southernmost tip of New Zealand. The leatherback is found in all tropical and subtropical oceans, and its range extends well into the Arctic Circle.
The three major, genetically distinct populations occur in the Atlantic, eastern Pacific, and western Pacific Oceans. While nesting beaches have been identified in the region, leatherback populations in the Indian Ocean remain generally unassessed and unevaluated.
Recent estimates of global nesting populations are that 26,000 to 43,000 females nest annually, which is a dramatic decline from the 115,000 estimated in 1980.
The leatherback turtle population in the Atlantic Ocean ranges across the entire region. They range as far north as the North Sea and to the Cape of Good Hope in the south. Unlike other sea turtles, leatherback feeding areas are in colder waters, where an abundance of their jellyfish prey is found, which broadens their range. However, only a few beaches on both sides of the Atlantic provide nesting sites.
Off the Atlantic coast of Canada, leatherback turtles feed in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence near Quebec and as far north as Newfoundland and Labrador. The most significant Atlantic nesting sites are in Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana in South America, Antigua and Barbuda, and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and Gabon in Central Africa. The beaches of Mayumba National Park in Mayumba, Gabon, host the largest nesting population on the African continent and possibly worldwide, with nearly 30,000 turtles visiting its beaches each year between October and April. Off the northeastern coast of the South American continent, a few select beaches between French Guiana and Suriname are primary nesting sites of several species of sea turtles, the majority being leatherbacks. A few hundred nest annually on the eastern coast of Florida. In Costa Rica, the beaches of Gandoca and Parismina provide nesting grounds.
Pacific leatherbacks divide into two populations. One population nests on beaches in Papua, Indonesia, and the Solomon Islands, and forages across the Pacific in the Northern Hemisphere, along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington in North America. The eastern Pacific population forages in the Southern Hemisphere, in waters along the western coast of South America, nesting in Mexico, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
The continental United States offers two major Pacific leatherback feeding areas. One well-studied area is just off the northwestern coast near the mouth of the Columbia River. The other American area is located in California. Further north, off the Pacific coast of Canada, leatherbacks visit the beaches of British Columbia.
A third possible Pacific subpopulation has been proposed, those that nest in Malaysia. This subpopulation, however, has effectively been eradicated. The beach of Rantau Abang in Terengganu, Malaysia, once had the largest nesting population in the world, hosting 10,000 nests per year. The major cause of the decline was egg consumption by humans. Conservation efforts initiated in the 1960s were ineffective because they involved excavating and incubating eggs at artificial sites which inadvertently exposed the eggs to high temperatures. It only became known in the 1980s that sea turtles undergo temperature-dependent sex determination; it is suspected that nearly all the artificially incubated hatchlings were female. In 2008, two turtles nested at Rantau Abang, and unfortunately, the eggs were infertile.
While little research has been done on Dermochelys populations in the Indian Ocean, nesting populations are known from Sri Lanka and the Nicobar Islands. These turtles are proposed to form a separate, genetically distinct Indian Ocean subpopulation.
Leatherback sea turtles can be found primarily in the open ocean. Scientists tracked a leatherback turtle that swam from Jen Womom beach of Tambrauw Regency in West Papua of Indonesia to the U.S. in a 20,000 km (12,000 mi) foraging journey over a period of 647 days. Leatherbacks follow their jellyfish prey throughout the day, resulting in turtles "preferring" deeper water in the daytime, and shallower water at night (when the jellyfish rise up the water column). This hunting strategy often places turtles in very frigid waters. One individual was found actively hunting in waters that had a surface temperature of 0.4 °C. (32.72 °F). Leatherback turtles are known to pursue prey deeper than 1000 m—beyond the physiological limits of all other diving tetrapods except for beaked whales and sperm whales.
Adult D. coriacea turtles subsist almost entirely on jellyfish. Due to their obligate feeding nature, leatherbacks help control jellyfish populations. Leatherbacks also feed on other soft-bodied organisms, such as tunicates and cephalopods.
Pacific leatherbacks migrate about 6,000 mi (9,700 km) across the Pacific from their nesting sites in Indonesia to eat California jellyfish. One cause for their endangered state is plastic bags floating in the ocean. Pacific leatherback sea turtles mistake these plastic bags for jellyfish; an estimated one-third of adults have ingested plastic. Plastic enters the oceans along the west coast of urban areas, where leatherbacks forage, with Californians using upward of 19 billion plastic bags every year.
Several species of sea turtles commonly ingest plastic marine debris, and even small quantities of debris can kill sea turtles by obstructing their digestive tracts. Nutrient dilution, which occurs when plastics displace food in the gut, affects the nutrient gain and consequently the growth of sea turtles. Ingestion of marine debris and slowed nutrient gain leads to increased time for sexual maturation that may affect future reproductive behaviors. These turtles have the highest risk of encountering and ingesting plastic bags offshore of San Francisco Bay, the Columbia River mouth, and Puget Sound.
Dead leatherbacks that wash ashore are microecosystems while decomposing. In 1996, a drowned carcass held sarcophagid and calliphorid flies after being picked open by a pair of Coragyps atratus vultures. Infestation by carrion-eating beetles of the families Scarabaeidae, Carabidae, and Tenebrionidae soon followed. After days of decomposition, beetles from the families Histeridae and Staphylinidae and anthomyiid flies invaded the corpse, as well. Organisms from more than a dozen families took part in consuming the carcass.
Leatherback turtles face many predators in their early lives. Eggs may be preyed on by a diversity of coastal predators, including ghost crabs, monitor lizards, raccoons, coatis, dogs, coyotes, genets, mongooses, and shorebirds ranging from small plovers to large gulls. Many of the same predators feed on baby turtles as they try to get to the ocean, as well as frigatebirds and varied raptors. Once in the ocean, young leatherbacks still face predation from cephalopods, requiem sharks, and various large fish. Despite their lack of a hard shell, the huge adults face fewer serious predators, though they are occasionally overwhelmed and preyed on by very large marine predators such as killer whales, great white sharks, and tiger sharks. Nesting females have been preyed upon by jaguars in the American tropics.
The adult leatherback has been observed aggressively defending itself at sea from predators. A medium-sized adult was observed chasing a shark that had attempted to bite it and then turned its aggression and attacked the boat containing the humans observing the prior interaction. Dermochelys juveniles spend more of their time in tropical waters than do adults.
Adults are prone to long-distance migration. Migration occurs between the cold waters where mature leatherbacks feed, to the tropical and subtropical beaches in the regions where they hatch. In the Atlantic, females tagged in French Guiana have been recaptured on the other side of the ocean in Morocco and Spain.
Mating takes place at sea. Males never leave the water once they enter it, unlike females, which nest on land. After encountering a female (which possibly exudes a pheromone to signal her reproductive status), the male uses head movements, nuzzling, biting, or flipper movements to determine her receptiveness. Males can mate every year but the females mate every two to three years. Fertilization is internal, and multiple males usually mate with a single female. This polyandry does not provide the offspring with any special advantages.
While other sea turtle species almost always return to their hatching beach, leatherbacks may choose another beach within the region. They choose beaches with soft sand because their softer shells and plastrons are easily damaged by hard rocks. Nesting beaches also have shallower approach angles from the sea. This is a vulnerability for the turtles because such beaches easily erode. They nest at night when the risk of predation and heat stress is lowest. As leatherback turtles spend the vast majority of their lives in the ocean, their eyes are not well adapted to night vision on land. The typical nesting environment includes a dark forested area adjacent to the beach. The contrast between this dark forest and the brighter, moonlit ocean provides directionality for the females. They nest towards the dark and then return to the ocean and the light.
Females excavate a nest above the high-tide line with their flippers. One female may lay as many as nine clutches in one breeding season. About nine days pass between nesting events. Average clutch size is around 110 eggs, 85% of which are viable. After laying, the female carefully back-fills the nest, disguising it from predators with a scattering of sand.
Cleavage of the cell begins within hours of fertilization, but development is suspended during the gastrulation period of movements and infoldings of embryonic cells, while the eggs are being laid. Development then resumes, but embryos remain extremely susceptible to movement-induced mortality until the membranes fully develop after incubating for 20 to 25 days. The structural differentiation of body and organs (organogenesis) soon follows. The eggs hatch in about 60 to 70 days. As with other reptiles, the nest's ambient temperature determines the sex of the hatchings. After nightfall, the hatchings dig to the surface and walk to the sea.
Leatherback nesting seasons vary by location; it occurs from February to July in Parismina, Costa Rica. Farther east in French Guiana, nesting is from March to August. Atlantic leatherbacks nest between February and July from South Carolina in the United States to the United States Virgin Islands in the Caribbean and to Suriname and Guyana.
People around the world still harvest sea turtle eggs. Asian exploitation of turtle nests has been cited as the most significant factor for the species' global population decline. In Southeast Asia, egg harvesting in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia has led to a near-total collapse of local nesting populations. In Malaysia, where the turtle is practically locally extinct, the eggs are considered a delicacy. In the Caribbean, some cultures consider the eggs to be aphrodisiacs.
They are also a major jellyfish predator, which helps keep populations in check. This bears importance to humans, as jellyfish diets consist largely of larval fish, the adults of which are commercially fished by humans.
The turtle is known to be of cultural significance to tribes all over the world. The Seri people, from the Mexican state of Sonora, find the leatherback sea turtle culturally significant because it is one of their five main creators. The Seri people devote ceremonies and fiestas to the turtle when one is caught and then released back into the environment. The Seri people have noticed the drastic decline in turtle populations over the years and created a conservation movement to help this. The group, made up of both youth and elders from the tribe, is called Grupo Tortuguero Comaac. They use both traditional ecological knowledge and Western technology to help manage the turtle populations and protect the turtle's natural environment.
On the South Island of New Zealand's Banks Peninsula the leatherback turtle has great spiritual significance to the Koukourārata hapū of te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, as well as wider significance in Te Ao Māori and to the peoples of greater Polynesia according to the protocols of each rohe. In 2021, a leatherback sea turtle was laid to rest by New Zealand's Department of Conservation in a hilltop cave on the Peninsula's Horomaka Island dug by hapū and in accordance with their rohe's ley lines, according to New Zealand's state broadcaster, Radio New Zealand.
Leatherback turtles have few natural predators once they mature; they are most vulnerable to predation in their early life stages. Birds, small mammals, and other opportunists dig up the nests of turtles and consume eggs. Shorebirds and crustaceans prey on the hatchings scrambling for the sea. Once they enter the water, they become prey to predatory fish and cephalopods.
Leatherbacks have slightly fewer human-related threats than other sea turtle species. Their flesh contains too much oil and fat to be considered palatable, reducing the demand. However, human activity still endangers leatherback turtles in direct and indirect ways. Directly, a few are caught for their meat by subsistence fisheries. Nests are raided by humans in places such as Southeast Asia. In the state of Florida, there have been 603 leatherback strandings between 1980 and 2014. Almost one-quarter (23.5%) of leatherback strandings are due to vessel-strike injuries, which is the highest cause of strandings.
Light pollution is a serious threat to sea turtle hatchlings which have a strong attraction to light. Human-generated light from streetlights and buildings causes hatchlings to become disoriented, crawling toward the light and away from the beach. Hatchlings are attracted to light because the lightest area on a natural beach is the horizon over the ocean, the darkest area is the dunes or forest. On Florida's Atlantic coast, some beaches with high turtle nesting density have lost thousands of hatchlings due to artificial light.
Many human activities indirectly harm Dermochelys populations. As a pelagic species, D. coriacea is occasionally caught as bycatch. Entanglement in lobster pot ropes is another hazard the animals face. As the largest living sea turtles, turtle excluder devices can be ineffective with mature adults. In the eastern Pacific alone, a reported average of 1,500 mature females were accidentally caught annually in the 1990s. Pollution, both chemical and physical, can also be fatal. Many turtles die from malabsorption and intestinal blockage following the ingestion of balloons and plastic bags which resemble their jellyfish prey. Chemical pollution also has an adverse effect on Dermochelys. A high level of phthalates has been measured in their eggs' yolks.
Conserving Pacific and Eastern Atlantic populations were included among the top-ten issues in turtle conservation in the first State of the World's Sea Turtles report published in 2006. The report noted significant declines in the Mexican, Costa Rican, and Malaysian populations. The eastern Atlantic nesting population was threatened by increased fishing pressures from eastern South American countries.
The leatherback sea turtle is subject to differing conservation laws in various countries.
The United States listed it as an endangered species on 2 June 1970. The passing of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 ratified its status. In 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated 41,914 square miles of Pacific Ocean along California, Oregon, and Washington as "critical habitat". In Canada, the Species at Risk Act made it illegal to exploit the species in Canadian waters. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada classified it as endangered. Ireland and Wales initiated a joint leatherback conservation effort between Swansea University and University College Cork. Funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the Irish Sea Leatherback Turtle Project focuses on research such as tagging and satellite tracking of individuals.
Earthwatch Institute, a global nonprofit that teams volunteer with scientists to conduct important environmental research, launched a program called "Trinidad's Leatherback Sea Turtles". This program strives to help save the world's largest turtle from extinction in Matura Beach, Trinidad, as volunteers work side by side with leading scientists and a local conservation group, Nature Seekers. This tropical island off the coast of Venezuela is known for its vibrant ethnic diversity and rich cultural events. It is also the site of one of the most important nesting beaches for endangered leatherback turtles, enormous reptiles that can weigh a ton and dive deeper than many whales. Each year, more than 2,000 female leatherbacks haul themselves onto Matura Beach to lay their eggs. With leatherback populations declining more quickly than any other large animal in modern history, each turtle is precious. On this research project, Dr. Dennis Sammy of Nature Seekers and Dr. Scott Eckert of Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network work alongside a team of volunteers to help prevent the extinction of leatherback sea turtles.
Several Caribbean countries started conservation programs, such as the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network, focused on using ecotourism to highlight the leatherback's plight. On the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica, the village of Parismina has one such initiative. Parismina is an isolated sandbar where a large number of leatherbacks lay eggs, but poachers abound. Since 1998, the village has been assisting turtles with a hatchery program. The Parismina Social Club is a charitable organization backed by American tourists and expatriates, which collects donations to fund beach patrols. In Dominica, patrollers from DomSeTCo protect leatherback nesting sites from poachers.
Mayumba National Park in Gabon, Central Africa, was created to protect Africa's most important nesting beach. More than 30,000 turtles nest on Mayumba's beaches between September and April each year.
In mid-2007, the Malaysian Fisheries Department revealed a plan to clone leatherback turtles to replenish the country's rapidly declining population. Some conservation biologists, however, are skeptical of the proposed plan because cloning has only succeeded on mammals such as dogs, sheep, cats, and cattle, and uncertainties persist about cloned animals' health and lifespans. Leatherbacks used to nest in the thousands on Malaysian beaches, including those at Terengganu, where more than 3,000 females nested in the late 1960s. The last official count of nesting leatherback females on that beach was recorded to be a mere two females in 1993.
In Brazil, reproduction of the leatherback turtle is being assisted by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources' projeto TAMAR (TAMAR project), which works to protect nests and prevent accidental kills by fishing boats. The last official count of nesting leatherback females in Brazil yielded only seven females. In January 2010, one female at Pontal do Paraná laid hundreds of eggs. Since leatherback sea turtles had been reported to nest only at Espírito Santo's shore, but never in the state of Paraná, this unusual act brought much attention to the area, biologists have been protecting the nests and checking their eggs' temperature, although it might be that none of the eggs are fertile.
Australia's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 lists D. coriacea as vulnerable, while Queensland's Nature Conservation Act 1992 lists it as endangered.
The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), sometimes called the lute turtle or leathery turtle or simply the luth, is the largest of all living turtles and the heaviest non-crocodilian reptile. It is the only living species in the genus Dermochelys and family Dermochelyidae. It can easily be differentiated from other modern sea turtles by its lack of a bony shell; instead, its carapace is covered by oily flesh and flexible, leather-like skin, for which it is named.