The leatherback’s shell resembles hard rubber, which is advantageous in deep dives because it compresses, rather than shattering.
The Largest and Fastest Turtle on Earth
The leatherback is something of the sea turtle par excellence. It:
- Is the fastest swimming sea turtle;
- Is the largest sea turtle on Earth;
- Bears the heaviest clutches of eggs;
- Migrates the greatest distances;
- Is the fastest growing of all reptiles;
- Can weigh, as an adult, as much as 1,300 pounds; and
- Can dive as deep as a whale, around 4,000 feet, among various other superlatives.
It is also among the widest ranging vertebrates in the world, found as far north as Newfoundland and Norway, as far south as New Zealand, Argentina, and the tip of South Africa.
Its most distinctive features are its lack of scales, claws and horny shell. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback’s shell resembles hard rubber, which is advantageous in deep dives because it compresses, rather than shattering. Unsuited for much prey with its weak, scissor-like jaws, the turtle feeds primarily on jellyfish, which it stores and wrings of water in its extremely long esophagus. This diet fuels amazingly fast growth, 7 to 13 years to adult size.
Sadly, the leatherback sea turtle leads other sea turtles in another category: the race to extinction. The IUCN lists the leatherback as Critically Endangered, the Pacific and Indian Ocean populations in particular danger. The main threats facing the species are beach erosion and development, egg harvesting and accidental entanglement in fishing equipment.