A Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) returning to sea in Grande Riviere, Trinidad.
© CI/Photo by Brian Hutchinson
Leatherbacks have the longest migrations between breeding and feeding areas of not just sea turtles, but all marine vertebrates. Their geographic distribution is the widest of any reptile, perhaps even any vertebrate. This massive reptile regularly travels thousands of miles from its nesting grounds on sandy beaches in search of food, almost exclusively jellyfish.
IN DEPTH: Scientists have conducted the largest multi-year tracking survey for leatherbacks in the Pacific. Learn about the results they found and how it can inform conservation policy.
Unlike other turtles with plated shells, the leatherback’s shell is made up of millions of tiny bones and covered with a thin layer of skin, which makes it more flexible and gives it a texture like wet, hard rubber. It also allows the turtle to withstand great pressure and dive to depths of 4,000 feet.
Like other diving animals that rely on air as their source of oxygen, when leatherbacks dive their lungs collapse under pressure which forces them to rely on oxygen stored in their blood and muscles. In turn, leatherbacks are able to store more oxygen in their blood and muscles than other sea turtles. In addition, leatherbacks have a pulmonary sphincter allows blood to bypass the lungs when collapsed so that the blood can be recirculated to the rest of the body.
More Leatherback Facts
- Sole remaining member of its taxonomic family (Dermochelyidae) with ~100 million year history
- The largest leatherback ever reported was an adult male found in Wales larger than 2 meters long and 900 kg in mass.
- Can dive to a maximum depths of 1300 meters, maximum dive durations are longer than an hour (60 min).
- Leatherbacks use a combination of large body size, changes in metabolism and activity, strategic shifts in blood flow and peripheral insulation to regulate their core body temperatures. This thermoregulatory strategy is termed ‘gigantothermy,’ and is thought to have allowed other famous large-bodied reptiles – the dinosaurs – to have geographic ranges from the tropics to temperate areas.
- Leatherback hatchlings exhibit a ‘marathon’ strategy: they swim consistently for several days fueled only by yolk leftover from their eggs. Hatchlings can dive to 10 meters soon after entering the ocean for the first time.
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