Leatherback sea turtles are ancient creatures. They are big and powerful and under many threats due to climate change and trash in the ocean. After all these years of them being on this planet, evolution has adapted them in many ways for their environment. Adaptations help animals thrive and do what they need to do. While reading this, I hope that you can learn about some ways that these incredible turtles have adapted to their environment over the time of their evolution.
Leatherback sea turtles are reptiles. These turtles swim through oceans all around the world. They inhabit more places around the world than any other reptile. Leatherbacks live in tropical and temperate waters. They also live in chilly waters between 30 and 40℉ (-1℃ and 4℃). Since these turtles are cold-blooded, they depend on the temperature and climate of the air and the water around them to keep their bodies cool or warm. Swimming constantly keeps them warm. These amazing turtles are also the fastest swimming reptiles alive. A leatherback was once timed swimming at 21.92 miles per hour. Thick layers of fat and the large size of them keep them warm as well.
Leatherbacks do not have vocal cords, yet they can communicate in fascinating ways. Female leatherbacks, when nesting, make a belching noise, sounding much like a burping human (even though they lack vocal cords). Baby sea turtles make sounds to communicate with each other from inside their eggs. Baby leatherbacks develop inside their eggs for about two months. Once these turtles have fully developed ears, scientists noticed noises that they made, recording over 300 different noises in all! Once they are ready to crawl to the ocean after hatching, very few survive to adulthood, and very few make it to the ocean. But if these adorable little hatchlings hatch together, then there is a much bigger chance that they will make it across the beach to the ocean!
Leatherbacks swim by paddling their front flippers at the same time as they are steering by using their back flippers. Strong muscles come in handy when swimming. Leatherbacks (as do other animals) burn energy by using their muscles. These turtles feed almost entirely on jellyfish— often consuming twice their weight each day. It has been found by video that they mostly (at least in Canada) eat the largest species of jellyfish in the world, Lion’s Mane. Leatherbacks are very powerful swimmers and quite beautiful deep divers, so they use up a lot of energy and have to eat a bunch to regain that power. That is why they are built to eat so much. A leatherback’s jaws work like scissors because they are so sharp. This helps them pierce and hold foods like jellyfish and squid. There are also spiky barbs that line the turtle’s mouth and throat. They help keep the slippery prey from escaping.
Since these amazing turtles drink so much sea water and eat so much of those salty, salty jellyfish, they get rid of the excess salt with an extraordinary method. You see, they have a salt gland in their head that empties the excess salt into the turtle’s eyes. From there, the turtles cry out the excess salt through their tears. (Don’t worry—they are tears of salty jellyfish, not sadness.)
Leatherbacks are built to be super powerful swimmers and are made to swim for really long migrations. Nearly 13,000 miles. That is the length of the longest leatherback sea turtle migration ever recorded. Some of the reasons that leatherbacks migrate are to eat, hunt, mate, and lay their eggs, so it is important that they get where they are going.
Every few years these turtles migrate to warm, sandy, nesting beaches by the water. Far away from the shore, the female and male turtles mate and then the females crawl on to the shore and lay their eggs. A female leatherback digs a hole to lay her eggs. She lays about 60 to 120 eggs. They are called a clutch. Then she carefully covers up the hole and swims back into the ocean. This turtle returns to the beach every now and then for the next few weeks to lay about five to seven more clutches in different holes. About 56 to 65 days after being laid, these tiny turtles hatch. The temperature of a leatherback’s nest will determine the sex of the turtle. A cooler nest will produce more males, while a warmer nest will produce more females. That is one of the ways that climate change has an effect on these amazing creatures.
An adult female leatherback will often return to the same beach where she was born to lay her eggs. (It’s like THE FORCE, but for turtles.) They navigate to their destinations by sensing invisible lines of the mysterious physical concept of Earth that we call the magnetic field, as explained above. It is actually quite similar to how sailors use longitude and latitude. However, traveling isn’t always an easy trip. The magnetic fields slowly change over time, so the turtles have to switch their senses and change their nesting spots now and then.
The only turtles with leathery shells are the leatherbacks (hence the name). Leatherbacks typically have black bodies with white spots speckled all over them. Before one of these turtles dives deep down into the water, they take a big breath that can last them for an hour! They also have really big front flippers that help them push their big bodies through the water as they swim. On the top of these turtle shells (the carapace) there are ridges in a long line to help give the carapace a streamlined shape, so that they can move easily through the water and swim really fast, which is helpful because they do a whole lot of swimming! However, when they are in action they look like they are flying through a crystal blue sky and piercing the water with their powerful glides.What a magnificent thing it would be to see them one day!