Leatherback Sea Turtle Fact Sheet
Leatherback Sea Turtle
New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Endangered
This unusual marine reptile is the largest living turtle, reaching up to 6 feet (183 cm) in length and weighing up to 1,300 pounds (590 kg). The barrel-shaped body is covered with leathery skin, hence its name. Beside this feature, leatherback sea turtles can be identified by the ridges or keels that run lengthwise down the back and underside, dividing it into 8 sections above and 6 below. This turtle also has disproportionally large front flippers, which allow it to swim for long periods of time and cover great distances. The shell is dark black, blue or brown and speckled with white dots or patches. Prey items include soft food such as jellyfish and tunicates.
Nesting takes place primarily on "high energy" beaches, which have coarse sand, are adjacent to deep water, and are subject to erosion. Nesting occurs at St. Croix, Vieques and Culebra Islands and on the mid-Atlantic coast of Florida. Recent isolated nestings have been recorded along the coast from Georgia to North Carolina. Females may nest 5-7 times in a season at intervals of 9-10 days. A clutch of 60-150 eggs is laid during the night. The young hatch after a period of 55-75 days and make their way towards the water. It is believed that sexually mature females nest every 2 or 3 years.
Distribution and Habitat
Leatherback sea turtles are found all around the globe, from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. This is the most extensive range of any reptile. Populations commonly range farther north than other sea turtles because of their ability to maintain a warmer core body temperature over longer periods of time. In the Atlantic, leatherback sea turtles are found regularly off the coast of New England, especially Massachusetts and the Gulf of Maine, in Long Island New York waters, and in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as along the shores of Canada, the British Isles, Iceland, Europe and Spain.
Leatherback sea turtles are the most pelagic sea turtle. The large front flippers allow them to cruise along swiftly, and the keels or ridges streamline the body for cutting through the water. This species does not do well in captivity because they are continually banging into the walls of the holding tanks, damaging their fragile skin.
It is estimated that only 115,000 adult female leatherback sea turtles now exist. The flesh of this turtle is not particularly palatable, but they are killed for their meat, nevertheless. Various parts of the body produce oil used for medicinal purposes. The greatest threat, however, is widespread egg collection. In some areas, such as Mexico, almost all of the eggs are harvested for food; laws preventing this are not enforced. Only 7 of 19 known nesting beaches receive some protection. There are only four known nesting populations with more than 1,000 females.
Management and Research Needs
Sea turtles will at times become stranded on or near the shore. In order to aid those that may still be alive and to facilitate the timely and efficient handling of carcasses, a Stranding Network was established in 1980 through the cooperation of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Through this system, strandings can be reported by calling a hotline number: (631)369-9829. Marine biologists at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation handle the stranded and dead specimens.
In response to sea turtle mortality in trawl nets, the National Marine Fisheries Service has issued regulations requiring shrimp trawlers on the southeastern and Gulf coasts to have a turtle excluder device (TED) on their nets. This device allows turtles and other large marine life to escape should they enter the net.
Bjorndal, K. A., Ed. 1981. Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC Pp 442-452.
Carr, A. 1952. Handbook of Turtles. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.
Conant, R. and J. T. Collins. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Third Edition Expanded. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.
Hopkins, S. R. and J. Richardson. 1984. Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles. National Marine Fisheries Service. Pp 181-206.
National Marine Fisheries Service and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1995. Status Reviews for Sea Turtles Listed Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, Maryland.
Sternberg, J. 1981. Sea Turtles. Center for Environmental Conservation, Washington, DC
Drawing by Carol Decker