Leatherback Turtle

Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) Spanish Name: Baula

This turtle spends most of its life in deeper waters, coming ashore sandy beaches to nest.

The leatherback is a master of migration and can be found across tropical and subtropical seas. A stray individual is occasionally found as far north as Alaska and as far south as Argentina or New Zealand. While nesting, however, the turtle is restricted to tropical beaches.

Physical Description
The leatherback is the largest of living turtles and one of the largest reptiles in the world. Its limbs are adapted to function well as paddles, and its head can partially retract into the shell. This turtle is distinct because it has a leathery shell with deep ridges. It does not have the strong epidermal shield that other turtles have, so the carapace and plastron are protected by a softer skin covering. This is the only marine turtle that lacks claws and large epidermal scutes over the shell. The upper surface is usually dark brown or black, occasionally with pale spots on the sides, throat, and neck. The underside of the body is mostly pale pink and white. Females may have a pink area on top of the head; hatchlings may be a bluish black with white along the edges.

Biology and Natural History
The leatherback is a great wanderer and sometimes a single individual can be found quite far from the normal nesting migration. While it may seem tranquil, this turtle can be quite dangerous when bothered by using its flippers, jaws, and weight to fight back.

The leatherback is built well for surviving the range of oceans it navigates. In deep or cold waters it can maintain a reasonable body temperature thanks to its large size and thick layers of fat and carapace. It can still swim because its circulation operates with a counter current heat exchange which helps pull blood away from the flippers and keep the rest of the body warm. It is also able to swim underwater for three hours on anaerobic respiration, and its brain can operate without oxygen for periods of diving.

An adult female will come up to sandy beaches to lay her eggs in a deep nest that she digs with her front flippers. She lays 45 to 100 eggs, fills in the pit and conceals the nest. She performs all of this at night, returning to the ocean before light. The sex of the new turtles is determined by temperature (TSD). When they are ready, the hatchlings dig their way to the surface of the beach and head immediately for the ocean. Not much is known about the behavior of this great reptile while they grow from hatchling to adult. Adults travel far between feeding and nesting grounds. They mate in the water before the females move towards the sand to start the next generation.

Leatherback eggs are attacked by mammals (especially pigs and dogs), birds, and crabs; humans also poach the eggs which impacts the Leatherback's population. Their numbers have fallen to almost one-fifth of what they were in 1980. Hatchlings and juveniles are eaten by large fishes and sharks, but once the turtles reach adult size they have no predators besides humans.

The leatherback is a critically endangered species. It is protected by international policies and illegal to hunt. Read about Sea Turtles: Promises and Threats to learn more about the challenges facing this animal.

The leatherback has a weak beak, so it mostly eats jellyfish and some other oceanic invertebrates.

Adults of this species can reach 1.83 m long and weigh 680 kg. Pacific Ocean leatherbacks tend to be smaller than those of the Atlantic.

Order: Testudines
Family: Dermochelyidae

Henderson, Carrol L. Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002.

Leenders, Twan. A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical, S.A, Miami, FL, 2001.

Savage, Jay M. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica: A Herpetofauna between two Continents, between Two Seas. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002.

-Amy Strieter, Wildlife Writer