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Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network - Réseau Canadien de 
Conservation des Amphibiens et des Reptiles

Dermochleys coriacea
Leatherback Turtle / Tortue luth

Leatherback Turtle

The Leatherback Turtle is an enormous sea turtle reaching over 2 m in length and weighing more than 900 kg. It has an elongate triangular carapace covered with smooth skin and 7 prominent keels. It has no scutes. The carapace is gray, brown or black in colour and is covered in small white, yellow or pink blotches, as our the head and legs. Females have more pink on the top of the head than males. The plastron is white with five ridges. The limbs are paddle-shaped and lack claws.

Confusing Species
The prominent keels and lack of scutes distinguish the Leatherback Turtle from any other species seen in Canada. In fact it is the only living species with these features. All other marine species have claws, a bony carapace and scutes.

The Leatherback Turtle is found in both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and has been seen off Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia as well as Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces. It is one of the most widespread reptiles ranging throughout much of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Leatherback Turtles are found in bays and estuaries as well as the open sea. Nesting occurs on a small number of beaches with fine sand and a deep water approach.

Leatherback Turtles do not breed in Canadian waters. Females migrate to tropical or subtropical where they drag themselves up on beaches at night to lay their eggs. A female will lay several clutches of 50-166 eggs in a season but then may not lay again for another 2-3 years. Most Atlantic turtles nest from April to July while most Pacific turtles nest from November to January. Eggs hatch in 50-78 days. All the hatchlings from a nest emerge together and rush the sea. The young are 5-7 cm at length at this time. The sex of hatchlings in determined by the incubation temperature of the eggs.

Natural History
Very little is known about the behaviour of these turtles in open water. Their preferred prey are oceanic jellyfish but they also eat sea urchins, octopi, squid and a variety of other animals as well as some algae and kelps. Unlike most reptiles, Leatherback Turtles generate internal heat metabolically. It also has special glands for secreting excess salt.

Conservation Concerns
Because of their preference for jellyfish, Leatherbacks may accidentally eat plastic bags which block the digestive tract and kill them. Both adults and eggs are hunted by people and nesting beaches are vulnerable to habitat degradation. The Leatherback Turtle is considered Endangered in both Canada and the United States.

The following conservation efforts are ongoing:

Nova Scotia Leatherback Turtle Working Group - The Nova Scotia Leatherback Turtle Working Group is a collaborative marine research and conservation initiative involving fishermen and university-affiliated biologists in Atlantic Canada. On this Web site, you can learn about sea turtles, their research, and you can even track a leatherback turtle as it makes its way through the Atlantic Ocean.

Vancouver Aquarium The Vancouver Aquarium has started a Leatherback Turtle Awareness Program, to learn more about these endangered turtles that use British Columbia waters as one of their habitats. We are asking for help to report any sightings of sea turtles in coastal communities. In exchange, teachers, students, and community groups are provided with learning activities that will show us what we can do to help the Leatherback turtles. Visit their website to find out more about their Awareness Program.