March of the Leatherback Turtle

Researchers studying Leatherback Turtles over the course of five years have discovered the epic journeys taken by a group of Leatherback Turtles in the South Atlantic, with astonishing results. Satellite tracking has revealed three clear migratory routes, including one that is 4,699 miles long across the South Atlantic from Africa to South America. Many of the 25 females studied traveled large distances; moving their breeding colonies from Gabon to feeding grounds in the southwest and southeast Atlantic and off the coast of Central Africa. The turtles were discovered to stay in the areas for 2-5 years afterward or long enough to build up the necessary reserves to reproduce and return to Gabon. This study has allowed tremendous insight into the little-known migratory behaviors of the Leatherback Turtle.

The Leatherback Turtle is named for its unique shell that is composed of a thin layer of tough rubbery skin, which has been reinforced by thousands of tiny bone plates that gives its “leathery” appearance. The Leatherback is the only sea turtle that does not have a hard shell. Its large flippers are without claws and its head is deeply notched with two upper jaw cusps. The Leatherback has very delicate and scissor-like jaws capable of being damaged by anything other than a diet consisting of soft bodied animals, like the jellyfish. They can be anywhere between four to six feet in length and weigh between 660 to 1100 pounds. The largest Leatherback ever recorded measured in at ten feet and weighed a massive 2,019 pounds. The Leatherback is the largest of the sea turtles, travels the furthest, dives the deepest to depths of 4,200 feet where it can stay down for 85 minutes, and ventures into the coldest waters.

Leatherbacks have the widest global distribution of all reptile species, and possibly of any vertebrate. They are often found in both the tropic and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. Adult Leatherbacks have been known to swim as far north as Canada and Norway and as far south as New Zealand and South America. Unlike most reptiles, Leatherbacks are able to maintain their warm body temperatures in cold waters by using adaptations to both generate and retain body heat, including their large body size, alterations in swimming activity and blood flow, and their thick layer of body fat.

Sadly, the Leatherback Turtle is listed as an endangered species under the critically endangered section of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. It is believed that only one in a thousand Leatherback hatchlings survive to adulthood. The greatest known threat to the Leatherback Turtle is from incidental take in by commercial fisheries, and marine pollution such as balloons and plastic bags, which are often mistaken for jellyfish and consumed by the turtles. Their lifespan is unknown, but many Leatherback meet an early end due to human activity.

Photo Source: nasadaacs.eos.nasa.gov, adfg.alaska.gov

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