Leatherback Sea Turtle

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Leatherback turtle picture


Latin Name: Dermochelys coriacea

Family: Dermochelyidae

Order: Testudinata

Status: Endangered

The largest sea turtle, attaining lengths of six feet (177 cm) and weights of 1,4000 pounds. The turtle has a black, elongated, smooth carapace that tapers to a point above the tail. The shell lacks hard scales and is covered by a firm, rubbery skin with seven longitudinal ridges. There are some small white to yellowish blotches scattered on the carapace, neck, and flippers.

Habitat and Distribution:
This is the most pelagic sea turtle, preferring water depths greater than 150 feet. It ranges throughout the tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, but it is known to follow jellyfish, their primary food source, on large migrations as far north as Canada and the northern Pacific.

Life History and Ecology:
Leatherback nesting is very rare in Florida, but occasionally occurs on the east-coast from April to July. The primary nesting beaches are located in the tropical waters close to the equator. The turtle’s nesting frequency is based on a two to three year cycle, but an individual turtle may lay up to six nests in a breeding season. Each nest usually contains 80-85 eggs which hatch in 60-65 days. The life history of the leatherback is still mostly unknown, but scientists know they are highly migratory and mostly pelagic.

Basis of Status Classification:
A decline in the number of nesting females has been documented in every ocean. It is not known whether the leatherback populations in the United States are stable, increasing, or declining, but there is not question that some nesting populations have been exterminated. The primary threats to the population are egg harvesting, ingestion of marine debris, entanglement by long-line fisheries, and commercial shrimping.

Recovery Guidelines:
The US population of leatherback turtles can be considered for delisting if the following conditions are met:

  1. The adult female population increases over the next 25 years, as evidenced by a statistically significant trend in the number of nests in Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Florida.
  2. Nesting habitat encompassing at least 75% of nesting activity is in public ownership.
  3. All priority one tasks have been successfully implemented (NMFS & USFWS, 1992).


  1. Protect and manage nesting habitat
    • ensure beach renourishment projects maintain good quality nesting beach
    • prevent degradation of habitat from erosion control measures (sea walls)
    • ensure long-term protection of important nesting beaches
  2. Protect marine habitat
    • identify, and protect, important foraging habitats
    • prevent degradation of habitat from oil and gas developments
    • prevent degradation of coastal habitat from industrial and sewage effluents
  3. Protect and manage population on nesting beach
    • monitor trends in nesting activity
    • reduce effects of artificial lighting
    • ensure vehicle and construction activities avoid disruption of nesting activities
    • ensure adequate law enforcement
    • determine natural sex ratios and determine genetic relationships in the populations
  4. Protect and manage populations in the marine environment
    • determine distribution and abundance in the marine environment
    • monitor and reduce mortality from commercial and recreational fisheries
    • prevent oil spills and monitor oil and gas actiivities
    • reduce impacts from entanglement and ingestion of marine debris
  5. Public Information and Education
  6. International Cooperation

Ernst, C, J Lovich and R Barbour. 1994. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press. Pp. 59-73.

Lutz, P and J Musick. The Biology of Sea Turtles. CRC Press. Boca Raton, Florida. 432 pp.

National Marine Fisheries Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service. 1991. Recovery Plan for the Leatherback Sea Turtle. National Marine Fisheries Service, Washington, D.C.

Content updated Date May, 2015