The Largest Turtle in the World – Is It Too Late to Save the Leatherback?
Article by Karma Williams
Classified as critically endangered, the world’s largest turtle is the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). The largest leatherback had a recorded weight of over 1 ton! The Leatherback Turtle is so named because it has no distinctive bony plates on its upper shell; rather, its carapace is flexible, and covered with a thin layer of leathery skin. Dark in color with white and pink spots, a leatherback turtle can be easily recognized because of its seven fine ridges lining the length of the carapace and, of course, because of its large front flippers.
Leatherbacks are found in the tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. In the United States they are seen in southeastern Florida; in the Caribbean, they are found on Culebra Island, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix. They can submerge up to 4,922 feet in order to search for soft-bodied prey such as jellyfish. World-wide harvesting of the leatherback’s eggs has led to a massive decline in their population. As we have so sadly learned, our ecosystem is co-dependent and very delicately balanced. The over-harvesting of eggs has led to an increase in the jellyfish population, which can then harm power plants, clog boat motors, and can seriously injure, or in some cases kill swimmers in the shallow ocean waters.
Once the male hatchling enters the water, it never leaves. Only the female leatherbacks leave the water and crawl onto land to nest. As with other aquatic turtles, mating takes place at sea. To gain the female’s acceptance, the male leatherback makes head, flipper, and biting movements. Interestingly, female leatherbacks can mate every two to three years, and leatherbacks can breed and nest every year. The nesting seasons of this largest turtle depend on its location. Leatherbacks native to Parismina, Costa Rica nest from February to July, while turtles native to French Guiana nest from March to August. While other female turtles always return to the same beach from which they hatched to lay their eggs, female leatherback turtles can switch to another beach in the same general region.
Female leatherback turtles create a nest above the high tide line by digging into the sand with their flippers. One female leatherback turtle has the capacity to lay as many as nine clutches in one breeding season. One clutch contains approximately 110 eggs, of which 85% are viable. The eggs take an estimated 60 to 70 days to hatch. After hatching, the newborns must avoid land and air predators by themselves, and crawl back into the water to survive. Of those fortunate enough to make it back into the water, most will die, either from drowning or from other predators in the air and water.
Leatherback sea turtles have been in existence for 150 million years. Sadly however, their fate is now similar to that of many other turtles and tortoises – they are in critical danger of extinction. From 91,000 known nesting female leatherbacks in the Pacific Ocean, the number is down to an alarming low of 5,000. It is urgent that we realize the need to take care of these wonderful creatures. If leatherback turtles disappear, it will surely have a terrible effect on our fragile ecosystem. Should we not be able to stave off the extinction of this turtle, scientists predict the subsequent domino effect – the extinction of a host of other marine species. For this reason, there are federal and state laws that cover the life of the world’s largest turtle. These laws must be strictly followed and enforced to make sure of the continued existence of the leatherback. It is not enough that the great leatherback be seen only in pictures. We must assure that this magnificent creature can be seen in the wild by future generations.
Karma Williams is a turtle care enthusiast who has raised turtles for over 23 years. Discover more about turtles by visiting the turtle types page of her website. Get your free Pet Turtle Care mini-course, valued at , by visiting her PetTurtleCenterwebsite and requesting it. Check out her eBook entitled “The Ultimate Guide to Pet Turtle Care.”