From The Desk of Zelnio: Dermochelys coriacea

i-5873fc63193feb0c227c19f4253611ee-leatherback_turtle_hatching.jpgSo you walk into the pet shop, you're looking around at all the little animals and you see a cute little turtle in a freshwater terrarium. You think to yourself "wow, that's really neat, a cute little turtle." What you might not realize is that a cousin of this pet store turtle holds some most amazing physiological adaptations for non-fish marine vertebrates, can grow more than 2m (6 1/2ft) long, regularly weigh over 500kg (~1000lbs), and dive deeper than most fully-equipped marine organisms can! 

Description Dermochelys coriacea, a.k.a. the Leatherback Sea Turtle, was described originally as Testudo coriacea, meaning "leathery turtle" by Vandelli in 1861 (adopted by Linnaeus 5 years later in his Systema Naturae). Dermochelys, meaning something close to "skinned turtle" (as opposed to shelled perhaps?), was bestowed up the Leatherback by Blainville in 1916.  They are the only species in their taxonomic family, the Dermochelyidae. D. coriacea is characterized by its leathery back, absence of scutes (shell plates) and 5 long ridges running from head to tail. The shell is about 4cm thick and composed of an oil-saturated connective tissue. The flippers are proportionally longer than in other sea turtle species, spanning over 2m! That's basketball player length! The largest specimen on record appears to weigh in at 916kg or 2020lbs (12). Hatchlings can be 60mm (2 1/2 in.) in length and 5g (100lbs) and are born mostly black, but covered with tiny white scales that are lost as it grows into an adult.

Physiology Heat Conservation: They are able to sustain body temperatures around 25 degrees C when surrounded by water that is 5 degrees C (4). This is helped along by efficient heat conservation system including a low surface area to volume ratio, thick subcutaneous fat layer and countercurrent heat exchangers in the flippers (9). Unusual for a reptile, their resting metabolic rates are 3 times high than in other reptiles, but half as much as mammals when scaled to body size. It is suggested that these turtles can regulate their core temperature by how active they are, more active in the northern latitudes and less active in the tropics (13). Swimming & Diving: Gravid females top out at around 3m/s (7). Leatherbacks swim more or less continuously at constant speeds and do not take time out to bask in the sunlight (7). They dive in a V pattern and appear to exhibit Diel-Vertical Migration probably following their gelatinous prey as it migrates up and down the water column. Though 95% of all dives less than 200m deep and less than 20 min. long, some dives potentially take a Leatherback to a maximum calculated limit of 1,300m (8). The deepest recorded dive in the literature is 626m and lasted 54 min. though (10). Internesting females have low metabolic rates and are less active, possibly as a mechanism to prevent overheating and to copy with the warmer surface waters of the tropics (15).


Nutrition Leatherbacks appear to exclusively feed on jellies, including medusoid cnidarians, ctenophores and salps (1). Stomach contents from literature include the scyphomedusae of the genera Aurelia, Catostylus, Chrysaora, Cyanea, Pelagia, Rhizostomia, and Stomolophus (1). Hatchlings have also been raised for 6 months on Cassiopea (16) and have been observed  feeding throughout the water column on Aurelia, Ctenophores and unidentified gelatinous eggs (14).  Amazingly this diet supports not only their growth and metabolic functions, but must maintain their endothermy, which is an expensive process. To keep up a core body temperature and also bring the temperature of their food up to their body temperature requires a lot of jellies, which consequently is considered a low quality food item (1)! This is in part helped by oesophagus lined with conical spines and a compartmentalized stomach (5).

Reproduction Leatherback nesting sites range globally between 40°N and 35°S, but the largest concentration of nesting sites is on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Mating happens while females are on migration to their nesting site and DNA evidence of 1000 hatchlings suggests that these turtles are both polyandrous (one mother, many fathers) and polygynous (one father, many mothers) (3). Females come onto the beach at night to lay eggs. Usually, a female returns to the same nesting beach each season. About 70-80 yolked eggs are laid and incubate in the sandy nest for 55-75 days. A significant portion of nests may be lost to beach erosion, some naturally caused but shoreline development and engineering has played a significant role in recent years. Though there are some egg predators, such as fire ants, raccoons and opossum, egg poaching by humans is very common in many parts of the world. Another threat facing nesting sea turtles is climate change. Sex determination in sea turtles is temperature dependent and lower temperatures tend to masculinize a nest. Old nesting sites could potentially be wiped out by masculinization since it is the females the return to their native nesting grounds (6).


Ecology D. coriacea is a highly migratory sea turtle. Juvenile and post-hatchling habitats are not well known, but adults spend the majority of their life in the open ocean. Lab-reared posthatchlings have been shown to use both chemical and visual aids in foraging behavior (2). The chemical cues may be more important a turtles get older and dive deeper. The leatherbacks are often used by barnacles as a habitat as well and can transport barnacle species across oceans!

Biogeography Leatherbacks are found in all oceans, all over the world in latitudes ranging from subarctic to tropical. They can move quite long distances over the course of a year, even crossing whole oceans. One leatherback was tracked moving over 7,000km in only 124 days (11)! There is low genetic diversity between populations globally, compared to other sea turtle species (6). There is evidence of population subdivision along maternal lineages though, supporting the theory of natal homing (versus social facilitation) in leatherbacks. This is somewhat confounded by the low genetic diversity which may be due to ongoing or periodic gene flow, thus suggesting that the natal homing tendency is weak.

P.S.-Go Stephanie Coburtle!

Further Reading:

1.    Arai, M. N. 2005. Predation on pelagic coelenterates: a review. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the UK 85:523-536.

2.    Constantino, M. A., and M. Salmon. 2003. Role of chemical and visual cues in food recognition by leatherback posthatchlings (Dermochelys coriacea L). Zoology 106:173-181.

3.    Crim, J. L., L. D. Spotila, J. R. Spotila, M. O'Connor, R. Reina, C. J. Williams, and F. V. Paladino. 2002. The leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, exhibits both polyandry and polygyny. Molecular Ecology 11:2097-2106.

4.    Davenport, J. 1998. Sustaining endothermy on a diet of cold jelly: energetics of the leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea. British Herpetological Society Bulletin 67:4-8.

5.    Den Hartog, J. C., and M. M. Van Nierop. 1984. A study of the gut contents of six leathery turtles Dermochelys coriacea (Linnaeus) (Reptilia: Testudines: Dermochelyidae) from British waters and from the Netherlands. Zoologische Verhandelingen 209:1-36.

6.    Dutton, P. H., B. W. Bowen, D. W. Owens, A. Barragan, and S. K. Davis. 1999. Global phylogeography of the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Journal of Zoology 248:397-409.

7.    Eckert, S. A. 2002. Swim speed and movement patterns of gravid leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) at St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. Journal of Experimental  Biology 205:3689-3697.

8.    Eckert, S. A., K. L. Eckert, P. Ponganis, and G. L. Kooyman. 1989. Diving and foraging behaviour of leatherback sea turtles Dermochelys coriacea. Canadian Journal of Zoology 67:2834-2840.

9.    Greer, A. E., J. D. Lazell, and R. M. Wright. 1973. Anatomical evidence for a counter-current heat exchanger in the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Nature 244:181.

10.    Hays, G. C., J. D. R. Houghton, C. Isaacs, R. S. King, C. Lloyd, and P. Lovell. 2004. First records of oceanic dive profiles for leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, indicate behavioural plasticity associated with long-distance migration. Animal Behaviour 67:733-743.

11.    Hughes, G. R., P. Luschi, R. Mencacci, and F. Papi. 1998. The 7,000-km oceanic journey of a leatherback turtle tracked by satellite. Journal of Experimental  Marine Biology & Ecology 229    :209-217.

12.    Morgan, P. J. 1989. Presented at the Ninth Annual Conference of Sea Turtle Conservation and Biology, Vero Beach, FL.

13.    Paladino, F. V., M. P. O'Connor, and J. R. Spotila. 1990. Metabolism of leatherback turtles, gigantothermy, and thermoregulation of dinosaurs. Nature 344:858-860.

14.    Salmon, M., T. T. Jones, and K. W. Horch. 2004. Ontogeny of diving and feeding behavior in juvenile seaturtles: leatherback seaturtles (Dermochelys coriacea L) and green seaturtles (Chelonia mydas L) in the Florida Current. Journal of Herpetology 38:36-43.

15.    Wallace, B. P., C. L. Williams, F. V. Paladino, S. J. Morreale, R. T. Lindstrom, and J. R. Spotila. 2005. Bioenergetics and diving activity of internesting leatherback turtles Dermochelys coriacea at Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, Costa Rica. Journal of Experimental  Biology 208:3873-3884.

16.    Witham, R., and C. R. Futch. 1977. Early growth and oceanic survival of pen-reared sea turtles. Herpetologica 33:404-409.


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There's also lots of fishery interactions to consider, but that's delving into fishery politics... sometimes it's nicer to simply stick with the biology!

Interestingly enough, leatherbacks also have a "missing stage" of development, in that no-one's quite sure where they go or what they're doing during that post-hatchling/juvenile stage -- "not well known" would seem a nice euphemism. As someone who works on megavertebrates, I'm constantly amazed by folks who mistakenly think we already know everything about them. Indeed, those gaps in knowledge are so perplexing because you'd think we *would* have those answers...

No matter. Thanks for the nice review!

By FishGuyDave (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

Thanks Dave,

Another interesting point, is that leatherbacks have a missing gender! Females are typically studied because they can be tagged, followed and observed while nesting on the beach. Males are seldom found by researchers. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, they are sometimes found in fisherman's nets and longlines.

I don't talk about conservation and human effects in my species "reviews" because so many people don't know anything about the critters biology, but hear about save the (enter favorite critter here).

Thanks for you comment and I invite anyone to add on to the information I give weekly on different critters in the comment forum!

By Kevin Zelnio (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

"Hatchlings can be 60mm (2 1/2 in.) in length and 5g (100lbs)"?

Wow. That's a fairly dense hatchling!

lol, it took this long for someone to catch that? Does anyone pay attention! I'm tired of converting, everything is in metric from now on.

But how do these amazing creatures cope with the increased density and pressure that is present at 3000ft depths? How do they cope with the nitrogen released from the air? Do they have calculated patters of ascent to reabsorb nitrogen?

Thanks for the great article guys! I'm citing it for a college project. I looked up a bunch of sites, but this one was the most helpful and detailed.

As for where to dive, absolutely the North shore âWallâ. Some spots are a simple swim from the beach; possibly 200 yards out, subsequently dive over the wall which starts at around 50â and drops to 3200â. Keep your eye to the North where you may find the black-tip sharks and spotted eagle rays swim by.

Do not miss to dive Salt River where has giant coral heads and some caves. The reef is vigorous, exciting and filled of all varieties of marine life.