Leatherback turtle

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The leatherback turtle, which has survived for more than a hundred million years, is now facing extinction, especially in the Pacific. According to recent estimates, their numbers have sharply declined over the last 20 years. Now, only 2,300 adult females now remain, making the Pacific leatherback the world's most endangered sea turtles population.


Why should I be aware of this?

  • It is estimated that only about one in a thousand leatherback hatchlings survive to adulthood. Eggs are often taken by humans from nests to be consumed for subsistence or as aphrodisiacs. Many leatherbacks fall victim to fishing lines and nets, or are struck by boats. Leatherbacks also can die if they ingest floating plastic debris mistaken for their favorite food: jellyfish. Some individuals have been found to have almost 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of plastic in their stomachs. [1]
  • While the leatherback turtle is on the point of extinction in the Pacific, it is predicted that the Atlantic populations too will decline due to the large numbers of adults being killed accidentally by fishing fleets. In the Atlantic, they are at greater risk of being killed by longline fisheries, as they are widely distributed during the migration process and do not dive very deep.

All about leatherback turtle

The leatherback turtle can be found all over the world in tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. It is also found in small numbers as far north as British Columbia, Newfoundland, and the British Isles, and as far south as Australia, Cape of Good Hope, and Argentina.

The Mexico leatherback nesting population, once considered to be the world’s largest leatherback nesting population (65 percent of worldwide population), is now less than one percent of what it was in 1980.

At 1,200 pounds, the leatherback turtle is the world's heaviest reptile. Of particular concern is the plight of the leatherback, which grows to a length of 5 feet and migrates about 6,000 miles each year from nesting beaches in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands to the coastal waters of California and Oregon to feed on jellyfish.

Risk factors

Historically, leatherbacks have rarely been taken for their meat. The greatest threat used to be to their eggs, and this threat still exists. There aren't as many eggs to poach these days, however, because fewer and fewer leatherbacks show up to nest.

As they are jellyfish eaters, it's widely believed they mistake plastics and plastic bags for their meals. Since jellyfish and marine debris concentrate where ocean water masses meet, leatherbacks feeding in these areas are vulnerable to ingesting plastic.

The ingested plastic can lead to partial or even complete obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in decreased digestive efficiency, energetic and reproductive costs and, for some, starvation.

One of the most migratory

Leatherbacks are one of the most migratory of all marine turtle species, making both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific crossings. A special feature about them is their carapace, which is leathery, not hard as in other turtles. They also have long front flippers.

Because of a unique system of blood supply to their bones and cartilage, the body temperature of the leatherback turtle stays several degrees above the water temperature. This allows them to tolerate cold water, rather like a mammal. They can dive to depths of up to 1,200m, much deeper than any other marine turtle.

Recent DNA analysis confirms that Atlantic and Pacific populations are genetically distinct lineages of a single species. In turn, nesting Pacific leatherback populations are separated into two genetically distinct populations (eastern and western populations).


Leatherback turtles come on land only when the female turtles lay eggs, and when hatchlings emerge from the nest and make their way to ocean. According to estimates they mature sexually at about 10 years or age and may live to be 40 years old. Studying their biology is very difficult as they do not come to land often. Juvenile and male turtles are almost never seen at all. Consequently, most studies and protection efforts have focused on nesting females and hatchlings.

What can I do?

Human can easily make a difference without major lifestyle changes. All it needs is reducing plastic packaging packaging and moving towards alternative, biodegradable materials and recycling.


  • The leatherback is the largest of the sea turtles;
  • It travels the farthest, dives the deepest and ventures into the coldest water.
  • It is so named for smooth, rubbery shell
  • Leatherbacks feed on jellyfish
  • Adult leatherbacks weigh 700 to 2,000 pounds and measure 4 to 8 feet in length
  • Many leatherback turtles die from ingesting plastic debris mistaken for jellyfish


  • Saving the Pacific's leather turtle
  • Leatherback turtle
  • The Leatherback Turtle


  1. National Geographic