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Leatherback sea turtle, southeast of Montauk, 7/3/2011

Leatherback Sea Turtle

(Dermochelys coriacea)

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 food.

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 click here.


 
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