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Leatherback Sea Turtle Facts

The Largest Sea Turtle

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Learn 5 facts about the leatherback turtle - the largest sea turtle, including how big they grow, what they eat, and where they live.

1. Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle.

Leatherback turtle at egg deposition
Konrad Wothe/Picture Press/Getty Images
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest living reptile and the largest sea turtle. They can grow to over 6 feet in length and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Leatherbacks are also unique among sea turtles in that instead of a hard carapace, their shell bones are covered by a leather-like, oily "skin."

2. Leatherbacks are the deepest-diving turtle.

Leatherbacks could swim alongside some of the deepest-diving whales - they are capable of diving at least 3,900 feet. Their deep dives help them search for prey, avoid predators and escape from the heat when they are in warm waters. A 2010 study found that these turtles may regulate their buoyancy during a deep dive by varying the amount of air they inhale at the surface.

3. Leatherbacks are world travelers.

Leatherbacks are the most wide-ranging sea turtle. They also have the widest range, because they have a counter-current heat exchange system and lots of oil within their body that allows them to keep their core body temperature higher than the surrounding sea water - therefore, they can tolerate areas with colder water temperatures. These turtles are found as far north as Newfoundland, Canada, and as far south as South America. They are generally thought of as a pelagic species, but may also be found in waters closer to shore.

4. Leatherbacks feed on jellyfish and other soft-bodied creatures.

Purple Striped Jellyfish - Pelagia panopyra
Kip Evans, NOAA
It seems amazing that these enormous animals can live on what they eat. Leatherbacks feed primarily on soft-bodied animals like jellyfish and salps. They do not have teeth, but have sharp cusps in their mouths that help grasp their pray, and spines in their throat and esophagus to make sure prey can get in their throat, but not out. These turtles are important to marine food webs as they may help keep overabundant jellyfish populations in check. Because of their diet, leatherback sea turtles may be threatened by marine debris like plastic bags and balloons, which they may mistake for prey.

5. Leatherbacks are endangered.

Leatherback Turtle Hatchling / Jimmy G, Flickr
Courtesy Jimmy G / Flickr
Leatherbacks are listed on the Endangered Species Act as endangered, and as "critically endangered" on the IUCN Red List. The Atlantic Ocean population appears to be more stable than the Pacific Ocean population. Threats to leatherback turtles include entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris, ingestion of marine debris, egg harvesting, and ship strikes. You can help by disposing of litter responsibly, reducing use of plastics, never releasing balloons, watching out for turtles when boating, and by supporting turtle research, rescue and rehabilitation organizations.
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