Leatherback turtle

Dermochelys coriacea

Description

Coloured black with light spots, the leatherback turtle is the largest living species of turtle. It has a soft leathery skin with five ridges running down its back. Pale pink spots are present on top of the head and its features include a very pointed carapace (shell). Hatchlings are black with white markings on the carapace ridges and plastron (bottom of shell).

Distribution and habitat

Leatherback turtles are found in all oceans of the world. Their feeding grounds are mainly in temperate waters but they breed in tropical areas. Leatherback turtles are oceanic and are rarely found close to shore in Australia.

Leatherback turtles feed and occasionally nest within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park with nesting recorded at Wreck Rock and adjacent beaches near Bundaberg. There is sporadic nesting at other widely scattered sites in Queensland.

Leatherback turtles nesting in Queensland probably represent strays at the extremes of their ranges, with the survival of the foraging population in eastern Queensland dependent upon the larger, but declining, nesting populations in neighbouring countries.

Leatherback turtles are most commonly found in temperate waters feeding primarily on macroplankton (jellyfish, salps).

Foraging leatherbacks have been recorded as far south as Bass Strait and through the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Breeding areas

No large leatherback turtle rookeries occur in Australia. Most leatherback turtles living in Australian waters are presumed to migrate to breed in neighbouring countries, particularly Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. However, some Australian nesting occurs on the mainland coast near Bundaberg and on the coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory (Figure 1). Fewer than 10 animals nest annually in Australia.

Leatherback turtles are uncommon on the Great Barrier Reef and have received little scientific attention. Whilst the long-term trends in the Great Barrier Reef population is unknown, given the broad scale decline in the South Pacific leatherback turtle stock, the animals that occur on the Reef are likely to be part of that declining population. This raises concerns for the species in the Great Barrier Reef.

Figure 1: Leatherback turtle nesting sites

Map of Queensland, indicating leatherback turtle nesting sites 

Leatherback turtle facts

Breeding season December to January
Years between breeding Not measured (two to four years in other parts of the world)
Nesting female length 162.4cm (range from 150.5 - 174.5cm)
Nesting female weight Not measured (can weigh up to 960kg)
Clutch size (number of eggs)
90 eggs
Hatchlings emerge February to March
Hatchling success Low
Hatchling size 5.9cm (range from 5.14 - 6.52cm)
Hatchling weight 47g (range from 38.3 - 54.2g)
Predators of hatchlings Crabs and foxes