The leatherback turtle is the largest marine turtle on Earth and it is the fastest swimming reptile. The leatherback turtle gets its name from the leather skin that covers its ridged shell. Leatherback turtles are found around the world in tropical, subtropical, and temperate ocean waters.
Leatherback turtles grow to nearly 10 feet (3 m) long and weigh as much as 1,980 pounds (900 kg). They have ridged backs and streamlined bodies that enable them to swim long distances with little effort. They have long front flippers that help them to swim up to 20 miles (30 km) a day. The span of the flippers is equal to the length of the animal. Leatherback turtles can swim as fast as 22 miles per hour (35 km/h) though they more typically swim at about 6 miles per hour (10 km/h). Tagged leatherbacks have been tracked crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
A leatherback turtle’s shell is made up of thousands of connected small bony plates covered with a strong rubbery skin that looks like leather. Each plate can move a little, making the shell more flexible than if were completely solid. Most sea turtles have hard, bony shells. From above the skin is dark gray or black, from below it is almost white. This makes the leatherback difficult to spot by predators. A leatherback’s muscles generate enough body heat that the leatherback can stay active even in cold water. The leatherback’s book circulation traps heat close to vital organs giving it the stamina to dive deep and travel far.
Leatherback turtles eat jellyfish and other drifting soft-bodied creatures. The leatherback turtle’s throat is lined with fleshy, downward-pointing spikes that ensure the slippery prey do not escape. Leatherback turtles usually feed near the surface but they can dive down as much as 3,300 feet (1,000 m) and hold their breath for up to half an hour.
Leatherback turtles mate at sea. Males spend their lives at sea. Female leatherbacks come ashore to lay eggs. Females come ashore during the night, dig pits in the sand to lay 80 to 100 eggs each then return to the sea. Female leatherbacks spend less than 2 hours a year on land. The eggs hatch in about 65 days. Females lay eggs every other year. Only about 1 in every 1,000 leatherback hatchlings will survive to adulthood, which takes 20 to 30 years.
Leatherback turtles commonly live for 50 years or more. The scientific name of the leatherback turtle is Dermochelys coriancea.