Leatherback Sea Turtle (Canadian Pacific population)

Dermochelys coriacea

SARA Status
No Status
NS
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

SARA Status

  • No Status NS
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX
COSEWIC Status
Not at Risk
NR
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

COSEWIC Status

  • Not at Risk NR
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX

Description

Leatherback Sea Turtles are the last remaining member of the family Dermochelyidae, an evolutionary lineage thought to be 100-150 million years old.  Leatherbacks are the largest of the sea turtle species, weighing in up to 900 kg with a shell length of up to 2 m.

The Leatherback is the only sea turtle that does not have a hard shell. Instead, its shell is covered with leathery, slightly flexible, fibrous tissue overlaying interlocking bony plates. The bluish-black shell has seven front-to-back ridges and tapers to a blunt point, creating a hydrodynamic teardrop-shaped structure. Their front flippers are proportionally longer than other sea turtles’, often half as long as its shell. Unlike other sea turtles, Leatherbacks’ flippers have no claws. The shell, neck, head, and front flippers are often covered in white or bluish-white blotches.  Adult Leatherback Sea Turtles have a distinct pink patch on top of their heads, which is unique in size, shape, colour, and pattern.

Females lay approximately 100 eggs each time, several times during a nesting season, typically at 8 to 12 day intervals. They remigrate to the nesting site every 2 to 3 years.  Hatchlings emerge from the nest after approximately two months, and make their way down the beach to the ocean. Nesting and hatchling emergence usually occur at night, possibly to avoid predation and, for the hatchlings, to decrease the risk of desiccation as they make their way to the ocean.

Leatherbacks feed primarily on gelatinous prey, such as jellyfish and salps.  They do not have the chewing plates found in other sea turtle species; instead they have sharp edged jaws and backward-pointing spines lining their mouth and esophagus, that help to retain and swallow soft-bodied prey.

Habitat

Ranging further than any other reptile, the global population of Leatherback Sea Turtles is comprised of seven biologically and geographically distinct subpopulations, located in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and extending from approximately 71°N to approximately 47°S. There are two populations of Leatherbacks that enter Canadian waters: the Atlantic population, found off the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island; and the Pacific population, off the coast of British Columbia.

The Pacific Leatherback has two principal nesting populations: one in the Eastern Pacific, including beaches in Mexico and Costa Rica; and one in the Western Pacific, including beaches in Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia.  Leatherback Sea Turtles in Canadian Pacific waters are part of the Western Pacific population, migrating long distances (up to 15,000km) from the Indo-Pacific nesting beaches, to forage on jellyfish and other gelatinous prey species.

Leatherbacks are rarely observed in Canadian Pacific waters, with only 126 unique sightings reported in British Columbia waters from 1931 to 2009.  The pelagic nature of this species, combined with the difficulty in sighting them from a distance result in many unknowns with respect to their use of habitat off the coast of British Columbia. The Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle has exhibited declines of up to 95% in the last 50 years and is Endangered.

Threats

On Indo-Pacific nesting beaches, Leatherback eggs are subject to predation by mammals such as pigs and feral dogs. Nest predation by humans can also be a problem, as Leatherback eggs are consumed as a delicacy in some countries. Increased development on or near nesting beaches has a negative impact on the hatchlings that emerge from nests, as they are often disoriented by the bright lights and can succumb to exhaustion, dehydration, or predation as they struggle to find their way to the ocean. Although female Leatherbacks lay about 100 eggs at a time and may nest up to 10 times a season, only a few hatchlings will survive to grow to adulthood and breed.

Leatherback Sea Turtles are vulnerable to human-induced threats in the marine environment throughout their lives. There is substantial evidence that they are incidentally caught in numerous fisheries, and entanglement in fishing gear is not uncommon. While many fishers are careful to release trapped Leatherbacks, some turtles drown or sustain lethal injuries before assistance is given. Leatherbacks can also become tangled in discarded debris, collide with vessels, or mistake drifting plastic bags and debris for jellyfish prey, the ingestion of which can lead to obstruction of the digestive system and ultimately death from starvation.  

Diagram of an adult Leatherback Sea Turtle showing its distinguishing features. Credit: Paul Vecsei, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Diagram of an adult Leatherback Sea Turtle showing its distinguishing features
Credit: Paul Vecsei, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Female Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting on a beach in Trinidad and Tobago. Credit: Canadian Sea Turtle Network.

Female Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting on a beach in Trinidad and Tobago
Credit: Canadian Sea Turtle Network.

Further Information

What’s being done?

The West Pacific population of the Leatherback Sea Turtle is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which sets controls on the international trade and movement of species that have been, or may be, threatened due to commercial exploitation.  Canada is a member of CITES, and restricts movement or trade of listed species (or parts from listed species) across its borders.

For more information, visit the SARA Registry Website.

Leatherback Turtle

Leatherback sea turtle crawling up the beach to complete the nesting process. Copyright Shutterstock

Leatherback sea turtle crawling up the beach to complete the nesting process.
© Shutterstock

Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea
SARA Status: Endangered
COSEWIC Status: Endangered
Region: British Columbia

Help protect sea turtles!

You can help protect sea turtles by using less plastic. Sea turtles may mistake plastic waste for food. They may also get tangled up in various kinds of plastic, such as six-pack rings from pop cans or packing straps, which may cause injuries or make it hard for them to swim or feed.

Ways you can help:

  • Refuse single-use plastics, like straws and bags
  • Remember your reusable shopping bags
  • Pack your lunch in reusable containers
  • Use refillable water bottles
  • Recycle plastic whenever possible
  • Never litter - garbage can be carried by wind and water to the ocean
Leatherback Sea Turtle swimming near the surface of the ocean. Credit: Canadian Sea Turtle Network.

Leatherback Sea Turtle swimming near the surface of the ocean
Credit: Canadian Sea Turtle Network.

Did You Know?

No reverse gear

The Leatherback Sea Turtle cannot retract its head or flippers into its shell, nor can it crawl or swim backwards, which places it at greater risk of entanglement when it encounters fishing gear and other debris in the ocean.

Related information