The giants of marine turtles, leatherback sea turtles are oceanic
reptiles that can reach 6 to 8 feet in length and weigh 1,200 to 1,500
pounds. These dark green or black skinned turtles are often speckled with
white or pink blotches. Their name comes from their leathery covered
carapace, which is actually comprised of many thin, interlocking bone-like
plates which make up the carapace.
These turtles are listed as a federally protected endangered species.
Worldwide population estimates indicate a significant decline in numbers of
leatherbacks between 1980 and today. This decline is attributed to a number
of factors including loss of nesting habitats, destruction of nests by
poachers, ingestion of marine debris, propeller wounds and interactions with
commercial fishing operations.
Leatherbacks have several interesting anatomical features besides being
"soft - shelled." They are able to maintain their core( deep) body
temperature considerably higher than their surroundings. - disputing the
traditional theory that all reptiles are "cold blooded." This extraordinary
ability explains why leatherbacks can range as far north as Newfoundland,
Greenland and Iceland where the sea temperature, even in the summer, is only
in the 30 - 40 degree range. In addition, they are one of the few animals
that feed exclusively on jellyfish. In fact, their esophagus has long
backward pointing spines which aid in their swallowing such soft, slippery
Leatherbacks are commonly seen in Long Island's offshore waters during
the late summer. They often bask or rest at the surface, which may explain
why a number of them wash ashore mortally wounded by ship propellers. These
unusual reptiles also fall victim to ingestion of plastics floating on the
surface which resembles the jellyfish they catch for food.
The life expectancy of leatherbacks is not known, but first breeding is
thought to be between 10 and 15 years old. Female leatherbacks come ashore
to nest every 2 to 3 years in the warm sands of tropical beaches. Hatchlings
must make their way to the ocean quickly to avoid predatory seabirds. from
this time onward leatherbacks (with the exception of nesting females) spend
their lives at sea.
CRESLI was actively involved in studying and protecting Leatherbacks in
NY's coastal waters and on nesting beaches in Costa Rica and Isla Culebra. To see photos from Costa Rica
click here and Isla Culebra