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The Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtle

Wildlife Conservation

Sea turtles are elegant saltwater reptiles. They are well adapted to life in their marine world. With curved bodies and flipper-like arms and legs, they are agile swimmers able to navigate across the open ocean. When they are on the go, sea turtles must swim to the ocean surface to breathe every 3-5 minutes. When they at rest, they can stay underwater for much. There are seven species of sea turtles in the ocean. The Kemp’s Ridley, Olive Ridley, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, Flatback, Green and Leatherback.

How did the Leatherback get its name? Leatherbacks are named for their tough, rubbery skin, which is reinforced by a structure of small bones underneath the skin. This gives the turtle a leathery look to it and feels a lot like it too.  Leatherbacks are the only sea turtles that do not have scales and a hard shell.

Why are they in trouble? Leatherback turtle populations are cruelly affected by humans in many countries who kill nesting females for meat and oil and dig up the eggs for food. Human building and construction also threatens many of the important nesting beaches. Because of their long flippers, leatherbacks are at high risk of getting tangled and drowning in fishing nets. Because Leatherbacks spend a lot of time at the surface getting air, leatherbacks are also frequently hit and injured or killed by boats and propellers.

What do they look like? Leatherbacks are the largest of all sea turtles. Adult leatherbacks are 4-8 feet long and can weigh between 600-1,400 pounds. They are mainly black on the top with white and pink spots on the head, neck, and carapace. The plastron is spotted with pink, white and black. They have two tooth-like tips on both sides of the upper jaw. Leatherback babies are 2-3 inches long with fore flippers and unique white strips along the sides of their backs. There are seven ridges along the side of the shell of a leatherback and comes to a point at the tail. Their very powerful fore flippers are longer than those of other sea turtles. These ridges smooth out the body so they can maneuver easier through the water.

How long do they live? According to the World Wildlife Foundation the actual lifespan of leatherbacks is still unknown; however is it estimated to be between 40-45 years

Where do they live? Because leatherbacks are such good swimmers, they are able to migrate over large areas around the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Leatherbacks are mainly found more north than other sea turtles. As cold-blooded reptiles, a leatherback turtle’s body temperature is normally the same as the temperature of the water, but reports show they have been in water temperatures below 43°F. No other reptile has ever been known to remain active at such low temperatures. Due to their large size and a special characteristic of their circulatory system, leatherbacks are able to preserve body heat and remain active in colder water.

What do they eat? Leatherback turtles love jellyfish! Leatherbacks have delicate, scissor-like jaws. There jaws are so delicate that they can be damaged by eating hard animals or organisms. They are also known to squid, sea urchins, crustaceans, fish,  blue-green algae, and floating seaweed.

When and where do females lay their eggs? Females return to their birth beaches every 2-3 years, where they lay an average of 5 to 7 eggs every 9-10 days. In the United States and Caribbean, nesting season is from March to July. Female leatherbacks nest at night in tropical and subtropical environments in places like as, Mexico, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Malaysia, French Guyana, Suriname, the Costa Rica, Virgin Islands, and Florida. The females dig a large, deep pit to lay their eggs. While digging they create a bulky mound of sand next to the nest. By the time a leatherback is finished nesting, it is very hard to find the eggs. Leatherbacks will lay between 60-100 eggs, but only two-thirds of those will ever hatch. The eggs that do hatch are smaller than a baseball. The eggs that do not hatch are much smaller because they do not have a developed turtle inside of them.

Who are their predators? Baby turtles are much more likely to get eaten by other animals than the adults. Crabs and raccoons feed on the hatchlings when they first come out of their nest. Fish and seabirds are a threat to baby turtles in the water. Their flippers are especially at risk. Humans are also a predator of the Leatherback Sea Turtle.

How many are there? They migrate over long distances, which make them very hard to track and count. Only females come ashore and only for a couple hours. Current estimates put the worldwide female population around 100,000.  

What is being done to help them? Leatherback Sea Turtles were listed as an endangered species in 1970. This made it illegal to kill them or take eggs from the nests. Since 1972, the United States government has protected leatherback turtles. Since that time, their numbers have continued to decline and today the situation for the leatherback turtle is very critical. In certain times and places fishing or shrimp boats are now required to have larger Turtle Excluder Devices (TED’s) that will allow larger turtles like leatherbacks to escape from the nets. We can protect leatherbacks by using satellite tags to track turtles to learn more about their behavior and movements. Countries around the globe are starting to work together to address threats to leatherbacks and to better protect them throughout the world.

What can you do to help sea turtles? It is possible for anyone to help sea turtle conservation. You can help participate in beach cleanups or attend a public sea turtle walk. You can do a presentation on turtles for a class to raise awareness, and you can even adopt a turtle. These projects are designed to track turtles in the ocean to see where they go and where they spend their time. You can help just by remembering not to throw trash in the water or release a balloon. You can help bring awareness to your family and friends and let them know that sea turtles are an important part of our environment and should be protected.


Agile: Able to move quickly and easily.
Bulky: large and difficult to carry or store
Carapace: Top side/shell of a sea turtle
Characteristic: A special quality or trait that makes a person, thing, or group different from others
Circulatory system: Structures that send blood around the body
Clutch: Group of eggs in a nest
Cold-Blooded: Having cold blood : having a body temperature that is similar to the temperature of the environment
Conservation: The protection of animals, plants, and natural resources
Critical: Relating to or involving a great danger of death
Crustaceans: A type of animal (such as a crab or lobster) that has several pairs of legs and a body made up of sections that are covered in a hard outer shell
Decline:  To become lower in amount or less in number
Developed: larger or more advanced
Drowning:  To die by being underwater too long and unable to breathe
Endangered: Animal close to extinction Fore flippers: Flippers closer to the head, one on each side
Environments: The conditions that surround someone or something: the conditions and influences that affect the growth, health, progress, etc., of someone or something
Estimates: A guess that you make based on the information you have about the size, amount, etc., of something
Hatchlings: A recently hatched animal: a very young bird, fish, etc., that has just come out from an egg
Lifespan: the amount of time that a person or animal actually lives
Maneuver: a clever or skillful action or movement
Migrate/Migration: To move from one place to another based on the season.
Mound: A small hill or pile of dirt or stones
Navigate: Sail or travel over (a stretch of water or terrain), especially carefully or with difficulty
Participate: To be involved with others in doing something: to take part in an activity or event with others
Plastron: Bottom side of a turtle
Predator: An animal that lives by killing and eating other animals: an animal that preys on other animals
Presentation: an activity in which someone shows, describes, or explains something to a group of people
Propellers:  A device with two or more blades that turn quickly and cause a ship or aircraft to move
Reptiles: A cold-blooded vertebrate of a class that includes snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles, and tortoises. They are distinguished by having a dry scaly skin, and typically laying soft-shelled eggs on land.
Satellite tags: Are tags (or data logger) that is equipped with a means to transmit the collected data via the Argos satellite system.
Scales: One of many small thin plates that cover the bodies of some animals (such as fish or snakes)
Sea urchins: A small sea animal that lives on the ocean floor and is covered in sharp spines
Species: A group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants
Squid:  A sea animal that has a long, thin, soft body and 10 long arms
Subtropical: Area of the world next to the tropics
Tangled: Twisted together into a knot
Threatened: Animal close to becoming endangered
Tropical: Area of the world between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn