Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
Description: Unlike other sea turtles, the bony shell of the leatherback is not visible. Instead, it is covered by a leathery layer of black or brown skin, hence their name. The shell has seven ridges running from front to back.
Size: Leatherbacks are the largest of the extant (living) turtle species. They grow to over two meters in length and can weigh up to 2000 pounds.
Diet: Jellyfish make up the biggest portion of their diet, but they also eat seaweed, fish, crustaceans, and other marine invertebrates. Leatherbacks have downward pointing spines in their throat, which allows jellyfish to be swallowed, but prevents them from coming back up.
Typical Lifespan: Leatherbacks reach maturity at approximately 13 to 14 years. Their average lifespan is unknown, but it’s thought to be at least 30 years.
Habitat: Leatherbacks spend most of their lives at sea and sometimes look for prey in coastal waters. The females come on land to lay eggs.
Range: Leatherbacks are found in tropical and temperate marine waters all over the world. This means they live off of both the east and west U.S. coasts and also in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Hawaii.
Life History and Reproduction: Adult leatherbacks have few natural predators, but their eggs and newborns are preyed upon by many animals including birds, raccoons, and crabs. Female leatherbacks return to the same nesting beach to lay their eggs. Temperature determines the gender of the offspring—if it’s warm in the nest, females will be born. Likewise, if temperatures are cooler, males develop. Once the eggs hatch, they’re on their own—the baby sea turtles must make it into the water and learn to fend for themselves without any care from their parents.
Fun Fact: Leatherbacks have been documented diving to over 1200 meters! By contrast, scuba divers typically descend to only about 30 meters. Additionally, the Pacific leatherback is the fastest aquatic reptile and can reach speeds of 22 miles per hour!
Conservation Status: Federally listed as endangered. Their biggest threats all stem from mankind. Clutches of eggs are often illegally poached, and the offspring that do hatch sometimes become attracted to beach resort lighting and crawl away from the sea instead of towards it. Adults are victims of poaching, entanglement in fishing gear, and they sometimes ingest plastic marine litter.
University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
North Florida Ecological Services Office