- Leatherback turtle
name = Leatherback Sea Turtle
status = CR
status_system = iucn2.3
image_width = 250px
phylum = Chordata
classis = Sauropsida
familia_authority = Fitzinger,
genus = "Dermochelys"
genus_authority = Blainville,
species = "D. coriacea"
binomial = "Dermochelys coriacea"
binomial_authority = (Vandelli,
1761)The leatherback turtle ("Dermochelys coriacea") is the largest of all living turtles. It is the only living speciesin the genus "Dermochelys". As a sea turtle, the leatherback is the largest and heaviest. It can easily be differentiated from other modern sea turtles by its lack of a bony shell. Instead, the carapaceof the leatherback turtle is covered by skin and the turtle's oily flesh. "Dermochelys coriacea" is the only extant member of the family Dermochelyidae. Instead of teeth the Leatherback turtle has fangs. It also has a backwards spine to help it swallow food.
Anatomy and morphology
Leatherback turtles follow the general
sea turtlebody plan of having a large, dorsoventrally flattened, round body with two pairs of very large flippers and a short tail. Like other sea turtles, the leatherback's flattened forelimbs are specially adapted for swimming in the open ocean. Claws are noticeably absent from both pair of flippers. The leatherback's flippers are the largest in proportion to its body among the extant sea turtles. Leatherback front flippers can grow up to 270 centimeters in large specimens. As the last surviving member of its family, the leatherback turtle has several distinguishing characteristics that differentiate it from other sea turtles. Its most notable feature is that it lacks the bony carapaceof the other extant sea turtles. Instead of scutes, the leatherback's carapace is covered by its thick, leathery skin with embedded minuscule bony plates. Seven distinct ridges arise from the carapace, running from the anterior-to-posterior margin of the turtle's back. The entire turtle's dorsal surface is colored dark grey to black with a sporadic scattering of white blotches and spots. In a show of countershading, the turtle's underside is lightly colored.cite web | title =Species Fact Sheet: Leatherback Sea Turtle | work =Caribbean Conservation Corporation & Sea Turtle Survival League | publisher =Caribbean Conservation Corporation | date = 2005-12-29| url=http://www.cccturtle.org/leatherback.htm|accessdate=2007-09-06] cite web | last =Fontanes| first =F. | authorlink = | title =ADW: Dermochelys coriacea: Information | work =Animal Diversity Web | publisher =University of Michigan Museum of Zoology | year =2003 | url =http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Dermochelys_coriacea.html | accessdate = 2007-09-17 ]
"Dermochelys coriacea" adults average at around one to two
meters long and weigh from around 250 to 700 kilograms. The largest ever found however was a little over three meters from head to tail and weighed over 900 kilograms. That particular specimen was found on a beach in Walesin the North Atlantic. It is the world's fourth largest reptile, behind the larger crocodiles.
metabolicrate of the leatherback is about four times higher than one would expect for a reptileof its size; this, coupled with counter-current heat exchangers, the insulation provided by its oily flesh and large body size, allow it to maintain a body temperature as much as 18 °C(32°F) above that of the surrounding water. Its large size also gives the leatherback more capacity to maintain its body temperature than smaller, more ectothermic reptiles.cite web | title =WWF - Leatherback turtle | work =Marine Turtles | publisher = World Wide Fund for Nature(WWF) | date = 2007-02-16| url =http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/species/about_species/species_factsheets/marine_turtles/leatherback_turtle/index.cfm
They are also the fastest reptiles on record. The 1992 edition of the
Guinness Book of World Recordshas the leatherback turtle listed as having achieved the speed of 9.8 meters per second(35.28 kilometers per hour) in the water.cite web | last =Shweky | first = Rachel | title =Speed of a Turtle or Tortoise | work =The Physics Factbook | year =1999 | url =http://hypertextbook.com/facts/1999/RachelShweky.shtml | accessdate =2007-09-13] cite book | last =McFarlan | first =Donald | authorlink =Donald McFarlan | title =Guinness Book of Records 1992 | publisher =Guinness | year =1991 | location =New York | pages = | isbn = ]
The leatherback turtle is a species with a cosmopolitan global range. Of all the extant sea turtle species, "D. coriacea" has the widest distribution, reaching as far north as
Alaskaand Norwayand as far south as the Cape of Good Hopein Africaand the southernmost tip of New Zealand. The leatherback is found in all tropical and subtropical oceans, and its range has been known to extend well into the Arctic Circle.cite journal | last =Willgohs | first =J. F. | authorlink = | title =Occurrence of the Leathery Turtle in the Northern North Sea and off Western Norway | journal =Nature | volume =179 | pages =163–164 | year =1957 | url =http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v179/n4551/pdf/179163a0.pdf | doi =10.1038/179163a0 | accessdate =2007-09-07 |format=PDF] Globally, there are three major, genetically-distinct populations. The Atlantic"Dermochelys" population is separate from the ones in the Eastern and Western Pacific, which are also distinct from each other.cite web | title = WWF - Leatherback turtle - Population & Distribution | work =Marine Turtles | publisher =World Wide Fund for Nature | date = 2007-02-16| url =http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/species/about_species/species_factsheets/marine_turtles/leatherback_turtle/lbturtle_population_distribution/index.cfm
accessdate =2007-09-13] A third possible Pacific subpopulation has been proposed, specifically the leatherback turtles nesting in
Malaysia. This subpopulation however, has almost been eradicated. While specific nesting beaches have been identified in the region, leatherback populations in the Indian Oceanremain generally unassessed and unevaluated.cite journal | last =Dutton | first =Peter | authorlink =Peter Dutton | title =Building our Knowledge of the Leatherback Stock Structure | journal =The State of the World's Sea Turtles report | volume =1 | pages =10–11 | year =2006 | url =http://www.seaturtlestatus.org/Main/Report/SwotReport1.aspx | doi = | accessdate =2007-09-14] Recent estimates of global nesting populations indicate 26,000 to 43,000 nesting females annually, which is a dramatic decline from the 115,000 estimated in 1980.cite web | title = Leatherback Sea Turtle-Fact Sheet | publisher =U.S Fish & Wildlife Service-North Florida Office | date = 2007-08-31| url =http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/SeaTurtles/Turtle%20Factsheets/leatherback-sea-turtle.htm ] These declining numbers have contributed to conservation efforts to stabilize the leatherback sea turtles and move their species away from the current status of critically endangered cite web | title = Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) | publisher =U.S Fish & Wildlife Service | url =http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/SpeciesReport.do?spcode=C00F]
The leatherback turtle population in the
Atlantic Oceanranges almost all over the entire region. Their regional range spreads as far north as the North Seaand south to the Cape of Good Hope. Unlike other sea turtles, leatherbacks' feeding areas are colder waters where there is an abundance of their jellyfishprey which accounts for their more widespread range. However, only a few select beaches on both sides of the Atlantic are utilized by the turtles as nesting sites [cite news | first= | last= | coauthors= Stéphane Caut, Elodie Guirlet, Elena Angulo, Krishna Das & Marc Girondot | title=Isotope Analysis Reveals Foraging Area Dichotomy for Atlantic Leatherback Turtles | date=2008-03-25 | publisher= | url =http://www.plosone.org/doi/pone.0001845 | work =PLoS One | pages = | accessdate = 2008-03-26 | language = ] .
Off the Atlantic coast of Canada, leatherback turtles can be found feeding as far north as Newfoundland and
Labrador. They have been sighted as far north as the Gulf of St. Lawrencenear Quebec. The most significant nesting sites in the Atlantic are in Surinameand French Guianain the Caribbeanand Gabonin Central Africa. The beaches of Mayumba National Parkin Mayumba, Gabonare home to the largest nesting population of leatherback turtles on the African continent.cite web | title =Marine Turtles | work =Mayumba National Park: Protecting Gabon's Wild Coast | publisher =Mayumba National Park | year =2006 | url =http://www.mayumbanationalpark.com/turtles.htm | accessdate =2007-09-13] Off the northeastern coast of the South American continent, a few select beaches between French Guiana and Suriname are primary nesting sites of several species of sea turtles, the majority being leatherbacks.cite journal | last =Girondot | first =Marc | authorlink =Marc Girondot | coauthors =Jacques Fretey | title =Leatherback Turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, Nesting in French Guiana, 1978-1995 | journal =Chelonian Conservation Biology | volume =2 | pages =204–208 | year =1996 | url =http://www.ese.u-psud.fr/epc/conservation/Publi/texte/AE_CCB96.html | accessdate =2007-09-14] A few hundred nest annually on the eastern coast of Florida.cite web| title =The Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) | work = | publisher =turtles.org | date = 2004-01-24| url =http://www.turtles.org/leatherd.htm | accessdate =2007-09-15 ] In Costa Rica, the beaches of Parisminaare known nesting grounds of leatherback turtles.cite web | title =Sea Turtles of Parismina | work =Village of Parismina, Costa Rica - Turtle Project | publisher =Parismina Social Club | date = 2007-05-13| url =http://www.parismina.com/turtle.htm | accessdate =2007-09-13]
Leatherback turtles in the
Pacific Oceanhave been determined to belong to two distinct populations. One population is known to nest on beaches in Papua, Indonesiaand the Solomon Islandswhile their foraging grounds are across the Pacific in the northern hemispherealong the coast of Oregonin North America. The Eastern Pacific population forages in the southern hemisphere, in waters along the western coast of the South American continent while they nest in beaches on the Pacific side of Central America, specific nesting grounds being in Mexicoand Costa Rica. The Malaysian nesting population, reduced to less than a hundred individuals as of 2006, has been proposed as a third major Pacific subpopulation.
There are two major leatherback feeding areas in the continental
United States. One well-studied area is just off the northwestern coast of the United States near the mouth of the Columbia River. These waters are excellent feeding grounds for the turtles, where they are believed to be foraging in the nutrient-rich waters of the North Pacific. The other American foraging area for the turtles is located in the state of California.cite news | last =Profita | first =Cassandra | title =Saving the 'dinosaurs of the sea' | work =Headline News | language =English | publisher =The Daily Astorian | date = 2006-11-01| url =http://www.dailyastorian.com/main.asp?SectionID=2&SubSectionID=398&ArticleID=37627&TM=60182.09 | accessdate = 2007-09-07 ] Further north, off the Pacific coast of Canada, leatherbacks have been seen on the beaches of British Columbia.
Indian Ocean subpopulation
While there are few researches that have been done on "Dermochelys" populations in the
Indian Ocean, nesting populations are known from Sri Lankaand the Nicobar Islands. It is proposed that these turtles form a separate, genetically distinct Indian Ocean subpopulation.
Ecology and life history
Leatherback turtles can be found primarily in the open ocean. Scientists tracked a leatherback turtle that swam from Indonesia to the U.S. in an epic 20,000-kilometer (13,000-mile) journey over a period of 647 days as it searched for food.cite web | title = Leatherback turtle swims from Indonesia to Oregon in epic journey | work =Marine Turtles | publisher =iht.com | date =
2008-02-08| url =http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/02/08/asia/AS-GEN-Indonesia-Amazing-Journey.php
accessdate =2008-02-08] The turtles prefer deep water but are most often seen within sight of land. Feeding grounds have been determined to be closer to land, in waters barely offshore. Unusually for a reptile, leatherbacks can survive and actively swim in colder waters; individual turtles have been found in waters as cold as 4.5°
Celsius.cite web | title = WWF - Leatherback turtle - Ecology & Habitat | work =Marine Turtles | publisher =World Wide Fund for Nature | date = 2007-02-16| url =http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/species/about_species/species_factsheets/marine_turtles/leatherback_turtle/lbturtle_ecology_habitat/index.cfm
Adult "Dermochelys coriacea" subsist on a diet almost entirely composed of
jellyfish. Due to its obligate feeding nature, it has been hypothesized that leatherback turtles play a role in the control of jellyfish populations. Leatherbacks are also known to feed on other soft-bodied marine organisms such as tunicates and cephalopods.
Dead leatherbacks that wash ashore have been studied to be veritable microecosystems on their own while in the process of
decomposition. A drowned leatherback carcass observed in 1996 was observed to have been host to sarcophagidand calliphoridflies after being picked open by a pair of " Coragyps atratus" vultures. Infestation by known carrion-eating beetles of the Scarabaeidae, Carabidaeand Tenebrionidaefamilies soon followed suit. After days of decomposition, beetles from the families Histeridaeand Staphylinidaeand anthomyiidflies invaded the corpse as well. All in all, organisms from more than a dozen families took part in decomposition of the leatherback carcass.cite journal | last =Fretey | first =Jacques | authorlink =Jacques Fretey | coauthors =Regis Babin | title =Arthropod succession in leatherback turtle carrion and implications for determination of the postmortem interval | journal =Marine Turtle Newsletter | volume =80 | issue = | pages =4–7 | month =January | year =1998 | url =http://www.seaturtle.org/mtn/PDF/MTN79.pdf | accessdate=2007-09-15|format=PDF]
Like all sea turtles, leatherback turtles start their lives as hatchlings bursting out from the sands of their nesting beaches. Right after they hatch, the baby turtles are already in danger of
predation. Many are eaten by birds, crustaceans, other reptiles and also people before they reach the water. Once they reach the ocean they are generally not seen again until maturity. Very few turtles survive this mysterious period to become adults. It is known that juvenile "Dermochelys" spend a majority of their particular life stage in more tropical waters than the adults.
Adult "Dermochelys" are prone to long-distance bouts of
migration. Migration in leatherback turtles occurs between the cold waters in which mature leatherbacks cruise in to feed on the abundant masses of jellyfish that occur in those waters, to the tropical and subtropical beaches in the regions where they were hatched from. In the Atlantic, individual females tagged in French Guianaoff the coast of South Americahave been recaptured on the other side of the ocean in Moroccoand Spain. Matingbetween leatherback turtles take place at sea. Leatherback males never leave the water once they enter it unlike females which crawl onto land to nest. After encountering a female (who possibly exudes a pheromoneto signal her reproductive status) a leatherback male uses head movements, nuzzling, biting or flipper movements to determine her receptiveness. Females are known to mate every two to three years. However, leatherbacks have been found to be capable of breeding and nesting annually. Fertilizationis internal, and multiple males usually mate with a single female. However, studies have shown that this process of polyandryin sea turtles does not provide the offspring with any special advantages.cite journal | last =Lee | first =Patricia L. M. | authorlink =Patricia Lee | coauthors =Graeme C. Hays | title =Polyandry in a marine turtle: Females make the best of a bad job | journal =Proceedings of the National Academy of Science | volume =101 | issue =17 | pages =6530–6535 | date = 2004-04-27| url =http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=404079#ref45
doi =10.1073/pnas.0307982101 | accessdate =2007-09-07 | pmid =15096623]
While the other species of sea turtles almost-always return to the same
beaches they hatched from, female leatherback turtles have been found to be capable of switching to another beach within the same general region of their "home" beach. Chosen nesting beaches are made of soft sandsince their shells and plastrons are softer and easily damaged by hard rocks. Nesting beaches also have shallower approach angles from the sea. This is a source of vulnerability for the turtles because such beaches are easily eroded. Females excavate a nest above the high- tideline with their flippers. One female may lay as many as nine clutches in one breeding season. About nine days pass between nesting events. The average clutch size of this particular species is around 110 eggs per nest, 85% of which are viable. The female carefully back-fills the nest after, disguising it from predators with a scattering of sand.cite journal | last =Fretey | first =Jacques | authorlink =Jacques Fretey
coauthors =M. Girondot | title =Hydrodynamic factors involved in choice of nesting site and time of arrivals of Leatherback in french Guiana | journal =Ninth Annual Workshop on Sea Turtle Conservation and Biology | volume = | pages =227–229 | year =1989 | url = | doi = | id =NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SEFC-232 | accessdate = ]
Cleavage of the cell begins within hours of fertilization, but development is suspended during the
gastrulationperiod of movements and infoldings of embryonic cells, while the eggs are being laid. Development soon resumes, but the embryos remain extremely susceptible to movement-induced mortality in their nests until the membranes fully develop through the first 20 to 25 days of incubation, when the structural differentiation of body and organs ( organogenesis) soon follows. The eggs hatch in about sixty to seventy days. As with other reptiles, the ambient temperatureof the nest determines the sexof the hatchlings. After nightfall, the hatchlings dig their way to the surface and make their way to the sea.cite journal | last =Rimblot | first =F | authorlink =F Rimblot | coauthors =Jacques Fretey, N. Mrosovsky, J. Lescure and C. Pieau | title =Sexual differentiation as a function of the incubation temperature of eggs in the sea-turtle "Dermochelys coriacea" (Vandelli, 1761) | journal =Amphibia-Reptilia | volume =85 | pages =83–92 | year =1985 | url = | doi = | accessdate = ] cite journal | last =Desvages | first =G. | authorlink = | coauthors =M. Girondot and C. Pieau | title =Sensitive stages for the effects of temperature on gonadal aromatase activity in embryos of the marine turtle "Dermochelys coriacea" | journal =General Comparative Endocrinology | volume =92 | pages =54–61 | year =1993 | url = | doi = | accessdate = ]
As a global species with a range spanning both hemispheres, leatherback nesting seasons vary from place-to-place. Nesting occurs in February to July in
Parismina, Costa Rica. Farther east in French Guiana, "Dermochelys" populations nest from March to August. Atlantic leatherback turtles nest between February and July from South Carolina in the United Statesto the U.S. Virgin Islandsin the Caribbeanand to Surinameand Guyana.Fact|date=September 2007 With nearly 30,000 turtles visiting its beaches each year to April, Mayumba National Parkis the most important leatherback turtle nesting beach in Africa, and possibly worldwide.
Leatherback turtles have been around in some form since the first true sea turtles evolved over 110 million years ago during the
Cretaceous. The dermochelyids, as represented by the single living species "D. coriacea", are close relatives of the family Cheloniidaewhich contain the other species of extant sea turtles. However, phylogeneticanalysis has determined their sister taxonto be the extinct family Protostegidaewhich also included species with no hard carapace.cite web | last =Haaramo | first =Miiko | authorlink =Miiko Haaramo | title =Dermochelyoidea - leatherback turtles and relatives | work =Miiko's Phylogeny Archive | publisher =Finnish Museum of the Natural History | date = 2003-08-15| url =http://www.fmnh.helsinki.fi/users/haaramo/Metazoa/Deuterostoma/Chordata/Reptilia/Parareptilia/Chelonioidea/Dermochelyoidea.htm
accessdate =2007-09-15 ] cite journal | last =Hirayama| first =Ren| authorlink =Ren Hirayama | title =Oldest known sea turtle| journal =Nature| volume =392 | issue = 6677| pages = 705–708| date =
1998-04-16| url =http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v392/n6677/full/392705a0.html | doi =10.1038/33669| accessdate =2007-09-04]
Etymology and Taxonomic history
"Dermochelys coriacea" is the only
speciesin its genus "Dermochelys". The genus in turn, contains the only extant members of the leatherback turtle family Dermochelyidae.ITIS|ID=173843|taxon=Dermochelys coriacea|year=2007|date=14 September]
The species was first described in 1761 by
Domenico Vandellias "Testudo coriacea".ITIS|ID=208671|taxon=Testudo coriacea|year=2007|date=14 September] In 1816, the genus"Dermochelys" was coined by the French zoologistHenri Blainville. The leatherback was then reclassified under this own genus as "Dermochelys coriacea".ITIS|ID=173842|taxon=Dermochelys|year=2007|date=14 September] Later on, the species was classified in its own family of Dermochelyidaein 1843 by the zoologist Leopold Fitzinger.ITIS|ID=173841|taxon=Dermochelyidae|year=2007|date=14 September] In 1884, the American naturalist Samuel Garmandescribed members of the species as "Sphargis coriacea schlegelii".ITIS|ID=208673|taxon=Sphargis coriacea schlegelii|year=2007|date=14 September] The two described leatherback species were then united in "D. coriacea" with each given subspecies status as "D. coriacea coriacea" and "D. coriacea schlegelii". The two subspecies were later rendered invalid synonyms of the species "Dermochelys coriacea".ITIS|ID=173844|taxon=Dermochelys coriacea coriacea|year=2007|date=14 September] ITIS|ID=208672|taxon=Dermochelys coriacea schlegelii|year=2007|date=14 September]
Importance to humans
The harvesting of sea turtle eggs is still practiced by people around the world.
Asian exploitation of the turtle's nests have been cited as the most significant factor for the species' global population decline. In Southeast Asia, the collection of leatherback eggs has led to a near-total collapse of local nesting populations in specific countries like Thailandand Malaysia. Specifically in Malaysia, where the turtle is practically locally extinct, the eggs are considered a delicacy.cite news | last =Townsend| first =Hamish| title =Taste for leatherback eggs contributes to Malaysian turtle's demise| work =Yahoo! News| language =english| publisher =Yahoo! Inc. | date = 2007-02-10| url =http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070209/sc_afp/malaysiaenvironment_070209163323 | accessdate = 2007-02-10 ] In the Caribbean, some cultures consider the eggs of sea turtles to be aphrodesiacs.
Adult leatherback turtles are large animals that have few natural
predators. The most vulnerable stages in a leatherback's life are their early life stages at which point they are most vulnerable to predation of all kinds. Birds, small mammals and other opportunists are known to dig up nests and consume eggs. New hatchlings are also vulnerable on their journey from nest to sea. Shorebirds and crustaceans are known to prey on the turtles scrambling for the sea. Once they enter the water they become prey to a whole new host of predators such as predatory fishes and cephalopods. Very few survive to adulthood.
Leatherback turtles have slightly fewer human-related threats than the other sea turtle species. As their flesh contains higher oil and fat content than other species', there is not much demand for their flesh. However, human activity still significantly endangers leatherback turtles in direct and indirect ways. Directly, a small amount of leatherback turtles are caught for their meat by subsistence fisheries. Nests are raided for eggs by humans in a few places around the world, such as
Southeast Asia.cite web | title = WWW - Leatherback Turtle - Threats | work =Marine Turtles | publisher =World Wide Fund for Nature | date = 2007-02-16| url =http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/species/about_species/species_factsheets/marine_turtles/leatherback_turtle/lbturtle_threats/index.cfm
Aside from targeted efforts at catching adults and collecting their eggs, there are many human activities that indirectly harm "Dermochelys" populations worldwide. As a pelagic species, "D. coriacea" individuals are occasionally caught as
by-catchby commercial fishing vessels. As they are the largest sea turtles alive today, turtle excluder devices can be ineffective with adult leatherbacks of a particular size range. It is reported that an average of 1,500 mature females were accidentally caught annually in the 1990s. Pollution, both chemical and physical, can also be fatal to leatherback turtles. With their main diet consisting of jellyfish, many turtles die from malabsorptionand intestinal blockage following the ingestion of balloons and plastic bags which resemble their prey. Chemical pollution has also had an adverse effect of the "Dermochelys" population. A high level of phthalates has been measured in the yolkof "D. coriacea" eggs.
Global conservation initiatives
It is also listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (
CITES). This makes it illegal to harm or kill the turtles.
Conservation of the Pacific and Eastern Atlantic leatherback populations was included among the top ten issues in turtle conservation in the first
State of the World's Sea Turtlesreport published in 2006. Specifically noted were the significant population declines in the Mexican, Costa Rican and Malaysian populations. The Eastern Atlantic nesting population was noted for being threatened by increased fishing pressures from Eastern South American countries in whose waters the leatherbacks forage.cite journal | last =Mast | first =Roderic B.| authorlink =Roderic Mast| coauthors=Peter C. H. Pritchard|title =The Top Ten Burning Issues in Global Sea Turtle Conservation | journal =The State of the World's Sea Turtles report | volume =1 | pages =13 | year =2006 | url =http://www.seaturtlestatus.org/Main/Report/SwotReport1.aspx | doi = | accessdate =2007-09-14]
Leatherback Trustis an organization that was founded specifically towards the aim of the conservation of all marine turtles, specifically their namesake. The foundation was responsible for the establishment of a sanctuary in Costa Rica, the Parque Marino Las Baulas.cite web | title =The Leatherback Trust | work =The Leatherback Trust | publisher =The Leatherback Trust | year =2007 | url =http://www.leatherback.org/index.htm | accessdate =2007-09-13]
Country-specific conservation initiatives
As a species with a range encompassing dozens of coastal countries around the world, the leatherback turtle has been subject to differing country-specific laws regarding its conservation.
United Stateshas listed the leatherback turtle as an endangered speciessince June 2, 1970. The protected status of the species (in United States waters) was ratified with the passing of the U.S. Endangered Species Actthree years after.cite web | title =The Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) | publisher =The Oceanic Resource Foundation | year =2005 | url =http://www.orf.org/turtles_leatherback.htm | accessdate =2007-09-17] Farther north in Canada, where the leatherback turtle can also be found, the Species Risk Actwas established to make it illegal to exploit the species in Canadian waters. It has been classified endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.cite web | title =Nova Scotia Leatherback Turtle Working Group | publisher =Nova Scotia Leatherback Turtle Working Group | year =2007 | url =http://www.seaturtle.ca/ | accessdate =2007-09-13] Irelandand Waleshave initiated a joint leatherback conservation effort between the University of Wales Swanseaand University College Cork. Funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the Irish Sea Leatherback Turtle Projectas the project is called, focuses on serious research programs such as tagging and satellite tracking of individual leatherback turtles.cite web | last =Doyle | first =Tom | coauthors =Jonathan Houghton | title =Irish Sea Leatherback Turtle Project | work = | publisher =Irish Sea Leatherback Turtle Project | year =2007 | url =http://www.turtle.ie/ | accessdate =2007-09-13]
Several Caribbean countries have started conservation programs focused on using
eco-tourismto bring attention to the plight of the leatherback. On the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica, the village of Parisminahas one such initiative. Since 1998, the village has been assisting turtles with a hatchery program.cite web | last=Cruz|fist=Jerry McKinley|title =History of the Sea Turtle Project in Parismina | work =Village of Parismina, Costa Rica - Turtle Project | publisher =Parismina Social Club | month =December | year =2006 | url =http://www.parismina.com/turtle2.htm | accessdate =2007-09-13] Mayumba National Parkin Gabon, Central Africawas created to protect the most important leatherback turtle nesting beach in Africa. More than 30,000 turtles come to nest on Mayumba's beaches between September and April each year.
A more drastic measure that is being studied by the
Malaysian Fisheries Department is cloning. In mid-2007, the Fisheries Department expressed a plan to clone leatherback turtles to replenish the country's rapidly-declining "Dermochelys" population. Some conservation biologists however, are skeptical of the proposed plan as cloning has been done only on mammals such as dogs, sheep, cats and cows, and uncertainties persist about cloned animals' health and life spans.cite news | last =Zappei | first =Julia | title =Malaysia mulls cloning rare turtles | work =Yahoo! News | language =English | publisher =Yahoo! | date = 2007-07-12| url =http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070712/ap_on_sc/malaysia_cloning_turtles_1 | accessdate = 2007-07-12 ] Leatherbacks used to nest in the thousands on many of Malaysia's beaches, including those at Terengganuwhere more than 3,000 nesting females were counted in the late 1960s.cite news | last =| first =| title =Experts meet to help save world's largest turtles | work =Yahoo! News | language =English | publisher =Yahoo! | date = 2007-07-17| url =http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070717/sc_afp/malaysiausindonesia_070717180328 | accessdate = 2007-07-18 ] The last official count of nesting leatherback females on that beach was recorded to be a mere two females in 1993.
Brazil, reproduction of the leatherback turtle is being assisted by the IBAMA's "projeto TAMAR" (TAMAR project), which aims to protect all sea turtles in the Brazilian coast, by assisting their nests and preventing accidental kills by fishing boats. The last official count of nesting leatherback females in Brazil was recorded to be only seven females.cite web |url=http://www.projetotamar.org.br/publi.asp |title=Tamar's Bulletin |accessdate= 2007-12-26 |author= |date=2007-12 |work=Projeto Tamar's official website |publisher= |language =Portuguese]
It is listed as "Vulnerable" under
Australia's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and as "Endangered" under Queensland's Nature Conservation Act 1992.
Chelonioidea. The sea turtlesuperfamily.
Caretta caretta". The loggerhead turtle.
Chelonia mydas". The green turtle.
Eretmochelys imbricata". The hawksbill turtle.
Lepidochelys kempii". The Kemp's Ridley turtle.
Lepidochelys olivacea". The olive ridley turtle.
Natator depressus". The flatback turtle.
* Database entry includes justification for why this species is critically endangered
* Wood R.C., Johnson-Gove J., Gaffney E.S. & Maley K.F. (1996) - Evolution and phylogeny of leatherback turtles (Dermochelyidae), with descriptions of new fossil taxa. Chel. Cons. Biol., 2(2): 266-286, Lunenburg.
* [http://www.mayumbanationalpark.com/turtles.htm Mayumba National Park Turtles Online] Information about and photos of sea turtles and the world's most important leatherback nesting beach.
* [http://www.arkive.org/species/GES/reptiles/Dermochelys_coriacea/ ARKive] Photographs, Video
* [http://www.orf.org/turtles_leatherback.htm The Oceanic Resource Foundation]
* [http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/prot_res/species/turtles/leatherback.html NOAA Office of Protected Resources]
* [http://www.cresli.org/cresli/turtles/leaback.html Leatherback Sea Turtle at CRESLI]
* [http://www.thesea.org/TheSea/leatherback_sea_turtles.html Video of a leatherback sea turtle] Filmed in Bluefields, Nicaragua
* [http://www.greatturtlerace.com/ The Great Turtle Race] , a conservation group that monitors Leatherbacks as the swim from
Costa Rica, where they've just laid their eggs, back to their natural territory of the Galapagos Islands.
* [http://www.topp.org/species/leatherback_turtle/ Tagging Of Pacific Predators] , a contributor to The Great Turtle Race, this research group continues to tag and monitor Leatherbacks around the world, including the turtles from the race.
* [http://www.ianandwendy.com/OtherTrips/CostaRica/video_Tamarindo_Giant_Turtle.htm Video of a leatherback turtle laying eggs] Filmed in Tamarindo, Costa Rica
* [http://www.floridaleatherbacks.com/ Leatherback turtle research at Juno Beach, Florida]
The following is based on information from the Recovery Plan for U.S. Population of Leatherback Turtles, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, 1992. Obtained from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, and used with their kind permission.
Current StatusThe U.S. Federal government has listed the leatherback as endangered worldwide.
Within the U.S., the leatherback is known to nest in Southeastern Florida, Culebra, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix.
DescriptionThe leatherback is the largest living turtle and is so distinctive that it is placed in its own separate family, Dermochelys.
All other sea turtles have bony hard plates on their shells (carapace). The leatherback's carapace is slightly flexible and has a rubbery texture. No sharp angle is formed between the carapace and the under-belly (plastron) so a leatherback is somewhat barrel-shaped. Many can grow to be bigger than one too.
The front flippers of a leatherback are longer than in the other marine turtles, even when you take the leatherback's size into account. They can reach 270 cm in adult leatherbacks.
The largest leatherback on record was a male stranded on the West Coast of Wales in 1988. He weighed 916 kg.
Leatherback hatchlings look mostly black when you are glancing down on them, and their flippers are margined in white. Rows of white scales give hatchling leatherbacks the white striping that runs down the length of their backs.
While the Recovery Plan (being a scientific document) makes no mention of this, Turtle Trax would be remiss not to mention it here: hatchling leatherbacks are cute and engaging little animals.
Of considerable interest is that the core body temperature of adults in cold water has been shown to be several degrees Celsius above the surrounding water. This allows leatherbacks to prosper in ocean regions where other marine reptiles cannot. Fellow Canadian Michael James of Dalhousie University has been training fishermen in eastern Canada to spot leatherbacks, resulting in numerous sightings and an increased awareness that sea turtles inhabit Canadian waters too.
In 1982, Peter Pritchard estimated that 115,000 adult female leatherbacks existed worldwide and that roughly half of them probably were nesting in western Mexico. In recent years, however, the number of nesting leatherbacks has been in an alarming decline.
ThreatsLeatherbacks have historically been taken only rarely 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. Scientists have concluded that gill-net and longline fisheries are to blame,
Commercial FisheriesIn 1987, it was estimated that offshore shrimp fleets capture about 640 leatherbacks each year. About a quarter (160) die from drowning and many others die when they are injured unintentionally on the decks of these trawlers. A few years ago, US regulations made the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) mandatory. While compliance remains a problem, TEDs have saved many leatherbacks.
A group of sea turtle biologists recently concluded (June, 2000) that gill-net and longline fisheries were probably causing the decline. They published their findings in the prestigious journal Nature. They based their findings on the steep decline in the number of nesting turtles. Although some actions have been taken to limit the impact of longline fishing in the Pacific, the future of the leatherback is still seriously in doubt.
Nesting EnvironmentLeatherbacks prefer open access beaches possibly to avoid damage to their soft plastron and flippers. Unfortunately, such open beaches with little shoreline protection are vulnerable to beach erosion triggered by seasonal changes in wind and wave direction. A presumably secure beach can undergo such severe and dramatic erosion that eggs laid on it are lost.
The theft of eggs for local consumption is not currently a problem in Florida but continues in low levels in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Even though the harvest of turtle eggs is illegal in Puerto Rico, law enforcement efforts have been unsuccessful in deterring it. Historically, the situation was no better on Puerto Rico's smaller islands: e.g. egg poaching has been described as "extensive and unrelenting" (Carr 1978) and a "major problem" (Tucker 1988) on Culebra. Today poaching has been all but eliminated on Culebra as a result of nightly partrol and nest protection programs initiated by FWS on important nesting beaches in 1984.
Leatherbacks are also vulnerable to beach armouring, beach nourishment, artificial lighting, and human encroachment, as described in Threats to Marine Turtles.
Entanglement at SeaLeatherbacks are the most pelagic of turtles, feeding in the open ocean rather than near shore as other marine turtles do. At sea, they become entangled fairly often in longlines, buoy anchor lines and other ropes and cables. This can result in injury (rope or cable cuts on shoulders and flippers) or drowning.
Ingestion of Marine DebrisLeatherbacks have mistaken plastic bags, raw plastic pellets, plastic and styrofoam, tar balls and balloons for their natural food. Ingesting this debris can obstruct the gut, lead to absorption of toxins and reduce the absorption of nutrients from their real food.
Leatherbacks appear to mistake floating plastic in the form of bags or sheets for jellyfish and then eat it. Ten of 33 dead leatherbacks washed ashore between 1979 and 1988 had ingested plastic bags, plastic sheets or monofilament.
Conservation AccomplishmentThe Recovery Plan for the U.S. Population of Leatherback Turtles states:
A substantial effort is being made by government and non-government agencies and private individuals to increase public awareness of sea turtle conservation issues. Federal and State agencies and private conservation organizations such as the Centre for Marine Conservation, Greenpeace and National Audobon Society, have produced and distributed a variety of audio-visual aids and printed material about sea turtles. These include: a booklet on the various types of light fixtures and ways of screening lights to lessen their effects on hatchlings (Raymond 1984), the brochures "Attention Beach Users, "Lights Out" bumper stickers and decals, a coloring book, video tapes, slide/tape programs, full color identification posters of the eight species of sea turtles, and a hawksbill poster. Florida Power and Light Company also has produced a booklet (Van Meter, 1990) with general information on sea turtles. In the USVI, the St. Croix Environmental Association, the University of Virgin Islands Extension Service, the Environmental Association, the University of the Virgin Islands Extension Service, the VIDFW and NPS are actively involved in circulating newsletters and information packages, and in presenting slide shows and seminars. EARTHWATCH-supported projects in Puerto Rico and in the USVI have involved many people in sea turtle conservation efforts. These projects on Sandy Point, NWR, St. Croix, and Culebra, Puerto Rico, have both brought a great deal of attention to this species and have generated high levels of local involvement and awareness. In both locations, the general public has become aware of the problems facing the species and in general has developed protectionist attitudes, in contrast to previous attitudes of exploitation.
Leatherback Quick FactsReprinted from Florida's Sea Turtles, Copyright 1992, courtesy the Florida Power & Light Company.
The leatherback is the largest of the sea turtles; it travels the farthest, dives the deepest and ventures into the coldest water.
Named for smooth, rubbery shell Feeds on jellyfish About 50 nests a year reported in Florida, estimates of 70,000 to 115,000 breeding females worldwide A huge turtle: adults weigh 700 to 2,000 pounds and measure 4 to 8 feet in length Hatchlings: 2-1/2 inches long Nest in Florida from April through July Many leatherback turtles die from ingesting plastic debris mistaken for jellyfish
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