There are several populations of leatherback turtles that live in very different parts of the world. Eastern Pacific leatherbacks nest in Costa Rica and Mexico and travel to both South America (off Chile and Peru) and California. Western Pacific leatherbacks nest in areas such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Mariana Islands of the South Pacific and travel across the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of the US and Canada to forage for food. Atlantic leatherbacks nest in places like the southern states of the US, the Caribbean, Trinidad, French Guyana, Mexico, and Western Africa. They travel to various locations throughout the Atlantic as far as the Eastern Coast of Canada even to South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Leatherbacks’ main source of food is jellyfish, such as the Portugese Man-of-War, the lion’s mane, the cannonball jelly and other jelly-like animals. Leatherbacks can eat their body weight in jellies in one day. Leatherback turtles have many rows of spikes in their throats to help them hold their slippery food down. Unfortunately, turtles often mistake plastic bags or fishing line for jellies, which can injure them and can sometimes be fatal.
Leatherbacks dig nests in the sand like other sea turtles, but they often lay many more eggs in their nests. In one nesting season females can lay 12 clutches (groups), with 65 to 85 eggs in each clutch. Leatherbacks also lay eggs of various sizes in a single clutch. Small, yolkless eggs are laid alongside the viable eggs. They are believed to act as spacers that allow air to circulate in the nest.
Leatherback turtles are listed as endangered on the Species at Risk List in Canada, and are on the Endangered Species List in the United States. There are estimated to be between 34,000 and 36,000 nesting females left worldwide (compared to 115,000 nesting females in 1980). The Pacific populations are facing extinction and the Atlantic population is being caught as bycatch (living things caught unintentionally while fishing) at an unsustainable rate.
Leatherbacks are facing extinction mainly due to human impacts on their environment. Nesting sites are disturbed through tourism or commercial development, and poachers often harvest eggs for food. Adult turtles are sometimes captured for food and their body parts are used for various commercial products (like traditional medicines). Turtles can also be killed and injured in collisions with boats. In particular, rubbish dumped at sea or from land may be mistaken for food and swallowed by the turtles, causing severe injuries and death. Similarly, turtles become trapped in fishing nets and drown.
The most important thing you can do to help the turtles is to keep our beaches and oceans clean through the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. Some fishing companies are outfitting nets with Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) that allow turtles to escape the nets when caught accidentally. Protection of nesting sites has been increased in countries like Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States. National Parks have been created to prevent further commercial development and the illegal actions of poachers. Fitting turtles with satellite tracking devices has helped to find out more about where the turtles go and how many there are in the ocean.
There are many helpful Web sites available to learn more about leatherbacks and other sea turtles, and to find out what YOU can do to help save them from extinction. Visit the Vancouver Aquarium's Web site, www.vanaqua.org, and stay tuned for more leatherback information and activities.
North Atlantic Leatherback Turtle Working Group
World Wildlife Fund
Leatherback Task Force
Rantau Abang Turtle Hatchery
Las Baulas Leatherback Turtle Project
Space for Species
Leatherback turtles do not have a hard shell like other sea turtles: instead they have a thick layer of cartilage (like the hard material found in your ears and nose) strengthened by thousands of tiny bones.
Leatherbacks travel the furthest distances (up to 12,000 km) and dive the deepest (1,200 m) of all the turtles.
Leatherback turtles show an amazing knack for travelling across the oceans. They don’t even use the major ocean currents to swim to where they are going. In fact, the turtles completely disregard the direction of the currents.
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2. Langton, Tom. 1999. “Hell for Leatheries.” BBC Wildlife, 17(3): 10-17
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