Ready to travel the oceans far and wide to meet one of our planet’s oldest animals? Then take a look at our leatherback turtle facts!

Fast leatherback turtle facts 

Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea
Family name: Chelonioidea
Classification: Reptile
IUCN status: Vulnerable
Lifespan (in wild): Up to 50 years
Weight: Up to 900kg
Body length: Up to 2m
Diet: Carnivore
Habitat: Ocean
Range:
leatherback turtle facts

The world’s largest turtles, leatherbacks can grow to to around 2m long and weigh up to a massive 900kg – that’s heavier than 11 men! They have four broad flippers, a triangular head and a barrel-shaped body covered by a large, black, speckled shell (or carapace). But unlike other species of sea turtles, such as the loggerhead and green sea turtle, the leatherback’s shell isn’t hard. Instead, as it’s name suggests, this ocean giant has a leathery shell that’s quite soft and flexible.

Leatherback turtles propel through the water using their powerful front flippers (which can span up to a massive 2.7m), while their rear flippers help steer them, a bit like the rudder of a boat. Super swimmers, they have the widest distribution of all marine turtles, and can be found in our oceans as far north as Alaska, USA, and as far south as New Zealand.

Compared to other turtles, leatherbacks can survive in much colder seas. Scientists believe this is because they are equipped with a thick layer of insulating fat and a unique blood system, which keeps their body warmer than the surrounding water. These awesome adaptations also allow them to dive to dive to cold, dark depths of over 1,000m, deeper than any other of our planet’s turtles!

The leatherback’s favourite food is jellyfish, and they’re well adapted for attacking and guzzling such gooey grub. Firstly, two sharp cusps on their upper jaw allow them to pierce and hold onto their squishy prey. Then backward pointing spines lining the leatherback’s throat hold the doomed jellyfish in place as it passes to the turtle tummy. Gulp!

Like other turtle species, leatherbacks migrate huge distances between their breeding and feeding areas. During the ‘nesting season’, the female crawls onto the beach where she hatched as a baby many years before, and digs a hole in the sand. She then lays her eggs inside the hole, covers them with sand and head backs to the ocean.

When the eggs hatch (about two months later) the tiny baby turtles dig their way out of their nest and make for the sea. But boy do these guys have it tough! As they scurry across the sand, the hatchlings need to be careful of birds, snakes, crabs and other creatures who’d love to gobble them up. And those that do make it to the water face further threats from other predators, such as sharks and big fish, who await them in the waves. Yikes! Given such dangers the hatchlings face, it’s estimated that as few as one in a thousand may make it to adulthood.

These brilliant, big reptiles have been on our planet for a seriously long time – a 100 million years in fact, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth! But sadly, their future is uncertain. Due to destruction of their nesting beaches, illegal collection of turtle eggs, pollution and accidental capture in fishing equipment, leatherback turtles are today critically endangered. The good news is that charities and conservationist groups are working to protect them. Head to wwf.panda.org to find out how you can get involved and help save this top turtle.

Credits – Leatherback sea turtle baby close up:  Scottamassey, Dreamstime. Leatherback sea turtle in the sand: Michael Nichols. Leatherback sea turtle heading to the surf:  Steve Winter. 
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