What Is a Leatherback Sea Turtle?

The leatherback sea turtle is a marvel of the marine world, the largest of all living turtles. Majestic and ancient, it navigates the oceans with a flexible, leathery shell. These gentle giants are crucial to ocean ecosystems, yet face threats from human activity. Discover how they play a pivotal role beneath the waves and what we can do to protect them. Ready to learn more?
Christina Edwards
Christina Edwards

A leatherback sea turtle is known scientifically as Dermochelys coriacea. It is considered to be the largest living sea turtle today. Unlike most other turtles, leatherback turtles have a soft shell. They can be found in warmer oceans throughout the world. These turtles spend most of their lives in water, unless they are laying eggs, and they can dive to great depths.

The leatherback sea turtle is the only member of the Dermochelyidae family. When it was first described in 1761, it was originally named Testudo coriacea. In 1816, however, it was reclassified. Other names for this turtle include leathery turtle and trunk turtle.

A leatherback sea turtle is very large, as it is largest known sea turtle in the world. It can grow to be 8 feet (2.5 meters) in length. One of the largest leatherback sea turtles found weighed in at 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms).


This turtle gets its name from the leathery texture of its shell. A leatherback turtle shell is made up of a matrix of small bones, which are covered by a thick layer of tough, rubbery skin. One main ridge runs down the middle of this turtle's back, and there are three more smaller ridges on each side.

An adult leatherback sea turtle is usually predominately black or dark brown. They do have pale markings, however, all over their bodies. Juveniles also have white markings on their flippers, which are used for swimming.

These turtles can be found in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the Indian Ocean. While they seem to prefer warm waters, leatherback sea turtles have also been found in more temperate climates, including some areas of Canada. They have also bee found near Australia.

Most of its life, a leatherback sea turtle can be found in deep waters. They can dive to great depths. Some scientists have determined that they can dive as deep as 4,200 feet (1,280 meters). One of the only times that a leatherback sea turtle can be found on land is when it is laying eggs.

Females will crawl onto sandy shores shortly after mating. Here, she will dig a hole with her front flippers, and lay a clutch of about 80 eggs. She will then cover these eggs with sand and return to the ocean. About two months later, the hatchlings will emerge and make their way to the ocean.

At one time, egg poaching in certain areas of the world was quite common. These turtles were also frequently hunted for their meat, and they also accidentally get caught in fishermen's nets. The number of these types of sea turtles has declined drastically over the years, and in 1970, the leatherback sea turtle was added to the United States' endangered species list.

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