Leatherback, leathery turtle, luth, trunkback turtle; Tortue luth (Fr); Baula, Canal, Cardon, Tinglada, Tinglar, Tortuga laud (Sp)
IUCN: Critically Endangered CITES: Appendix I CMS listing: Appendix I and II
Approx. 20,000 to 30,000 nesting females
Underwater giant on the brink
Although Atlantic populations are rather more stable, scientists believe that they, too, will decline due to the large numbers of adults being killed accidentally by fishing fleets. In the Atlantic, the fact that they are widely distributed during the migration process increases the risk of interaction of leatherback turtles with longline fisheries.
Leatherbacks have a unique system of blood supply to their bones and cartilage. This enables their body temperature to stay several degrees above the water temperature and allows them to tolerate cold water, rather like a mammal. They can dive to depths of up to 1,200m, much deeper than any other marine turtle.
Recent DNA analysis confirms that Atlantic and Pacific populations are genetically distinct lineages of a single species. In turn, nesting Pacific leatherback populations are separated into two genetically distinct populations (eastern and western populations).
The leatherback can reach up to 180cm, and 500kg in weight.
The species carapace (shell) is dark with white spots.
Juvenile leatherbacks may remain in tropical waters warmer than 26°C, near the coast, until they exceed 100cm in curved carapace length. Adults are pelagic and live in the open ocean, sometimes in temperatures below 10°C.
Female leatherbacks may lay 4 to 5 times per season, each time depositing 60 to 120 eggs. Leatherbacks appear to nest once every two or three years with an incubation period of approximately 60 days.
The large size of leatherbacks is all the more remarkable given their low energy, low protein diet of soft-bodied creatures such as jellyfish, squid and tunicates ("jelly fish-like" marine invertebrates).
Previous Population and Distribution
The global population for this species was estimated to be 115,000 adult females in 1982. By 1996 this had been revised down to about 30-40,000. Leatherback populations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans have undergone dramatic declines in the past forty years. For example, the nesting colony at Terengganu, Malaysia went from more than 3,000 females in 1968, to 20 in 1993, to just 2 in 1993 - there are no signs of recovery.
Similar scenarios have occurred in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Mexico. Numbers of females recorded at four formerly major Pacific rookeries have declined to about 250 in Mexico, 117 in Costa Rica, two in Malaysia, and fewer than 550 in Indonesia.
Current Population and Distribution
Leatherbacks have been recorded as far north as Alaska, and as far south as Africa's Cape of Good Hope.
The Pacific may now have as few as 2,300 adult females.
However, not all leatherback populations have declined: in southern Africa, three decades of strong protection have increased the small annual nesting population more than fourfold. Recent reports mention that west Africa has an important population with around 10,400 nests per season, but the total area occupied for the leatherbacks is not well known and there is no available historical information on nesting trends of this population.
The most important nesting beaches now remaining in the Atlantic are found in Suriname, French Guiana, and Gabon. In the Pacific, the few remaining important beaches are in Indonesia, Mexico and Costa Rica, with other rookeries found in Nicaragua, Panama and Guatemala.
Open water and coastal habitats
Mediterranean Sea, Northeast Atlantic Shelf Marine, Southern Australian Marine, Benguela Current, Humboldt Current, Agulhas Current, Western Australia Marine, Gulf of California, Canary Current, Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, Bismarck-Solomon Seas, Banda-Flores Sea, Great Barrier Reef, Palau Marine, Andaman Sea, East African Marine, West Madagascar Marine, Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef, Southern Caribbean Sea, Northeast Brazil Shelf Marine.
SWOT map of nesting beaches
Why is this species important?
As a major jellyfish predator, the leatherback turtle provides natural ecological control of jellyfish populations. Overabundance of jellyfish may reduce fish populations as jellyfish can feed on fish larvae and reduce population growth of commercially important fish.
What are the main threats?
- Habitat loss and degradation
- Wildlife trade
- Collection of eggs and meat for consumption
- Incidental capture (bycatch)
- Climate change
What is WWF doing?
- protecting nesting beaches and nearshore habitats by establishing and strengthening sanctuaries and wildlife refuges;
- raising awareness so that local communities will protect turtles and their nests;
- promoting regional agreements to conserve marine turtles;
- reducing longline bycatch through promoting and facilitating gear modification, using new migration and genetics information to develop and trial management measures and,ensuring that any traditional take is sustainable.
- Junquillal leatherbacks programme, Costa Rica
- Tracking the movements of the leatherbacks in the Atlantic
How you can help
- Send a turtle to rehab! Help the recuperation process for thousands of sick and injured turtles.
- Don't buy products which have been made from sea turtle parts. Guitars, ashtrays, jewellry and other products made from sea turtles are sold to tourists around the world.