Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

Photograph of the Leatherback Sea Turtle


Texas Status
U.S. Status
Endangered, Listed 6/02/1970
The Leatherback is the largest of all sea turtles, with weights of 1,300 lbs. and a carapace length of up to 8 feet. This turtle is unique because of the smooth leathery skin covering its carapace.
Life History
The leatherback is one of the largest living reptiles, surpassed in size only by some species of crocodiles. Adults can be distinguished from all other species of sea turtles by their large size, spindle-shaped bodies, and leathery, unscaled carapaces. Research on captive turtles indicates that leatherbacks grow faster than any other marine turtle. Leatherbacks feed mainly on pelagic (open ocean) soft-bodied invertebrates such as jellyfish and tunicates. Their diet may also include squid, fish, crustaceans, algae, and floating seaweed. Highest concentrations of these prey animals are often found in areas where deep water comes to the surface (upwelling areas) and where ocean currents converge.

These giant turtles live at least 30 years and up to 50 years or more. Adults are believed to reach sexual maturity between 3 and 4 years of age, although the age at which wild turtles reach maturity may be greater. Unlike most sea turtles, which nest in the spring and summer, leatherbacks usually nest in fall and winter. They arrive at the nesting beaches in large groups, forming "arribazones", where groups of females move onto the beach to lay their eggs over a period of a few days. The eggs incubate in the sand for 50 to 78 days. The incubation period is longer when the weather is cool. Hatchlings emerge from the nest mostly at night, race quickly to the surf and swim hurriedly toward the open ocean. Predation is high during the first two years of life. The eggs are eaten by raccoons, skunks, opossums, mongooses, coatis, and dogs. Hatchlings are preyed upon by mammals, sea birds, crabs, and carnivorous fishes. Predation continues until the turtles are big enough to avoid being swallowed. Sharks are a formidable predator throughout the life-cycle of the leatherback.
The leatherback prefers the open ocean and moves into coastal waters only during the reproductive season. Although small groups may move into coastal waters following concentrations of jellyfish, these turtles seldom travel in large groups. Leatherbacks inhabit primarily the upper reaches of the open ocean, but they also frequently descend into deep waters from 650 to 1650 feet in depth.
In Texas, the leatherback sea turtle occurs in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a rare visitor to the Texas Gulf Coast.
Disturbance of the nesting grounds is the most serious threat to the leatherback. Although the flesh of this sea turtle is not eaten, the population has been threatened by egg- harvesting in countries such as Malaysia, Surinam, the Guianas, the west coast of Mexico, Costa Rica, and in several Caribbean islands. leatherbacks were killed in the past for the abundant oil they yield, which was used for oil lamps and for caulking wooden boats. Ingesting plastic bags and other plastic wastes are another cause of death for leatherbacks. The turtles confuse plastic wastes with one of their favorite foods - jellyfish. When swallowed, plastics can clog a turtle's throat, esophagus, and intestines.

The leatherback sea turtle is considered an endangered species throughout its worldwide range. It is listed in Appendix 1 of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), a list of the most highly endangered animals worldwide. In the majority of countries, this turtle is fully protected by law, however, enforcement of this protection is difficult in many areas. Indiscriminate poaching of eggs and capture of adults at sea or in nesting areas is still widespread. Although captive breeding has been attempted, it has been largely unsuccessful.