Leatherback Sea Turtle

Photo by Dr. Matthew Godfrey

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Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea

Classification: Nongame species; state and federally listed as endangered

Abundance: Along the coast

Species Profile (PDF)


Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings making their way to the ocean (Photo by Dr. Matthew Godfrey)

Additional Information

The leatherback sea turtle is the largest turtle in the world, and regularly occurs off the coast of North Carolina. The greatest number of observations of this species off the coast of North Carolina occurs in the spring and early summer months, when they are migrating north to foraging grounds off of New England and Atlantic Canada. The leatherback is named for its dorsal shell (or carapace) that is covered with a layer of dark or black leathery skin. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback carapace is a mosaic of small bones called osteoderms, and is characterized by seven prominent ridges or keels. The front flippers are long and smooth, with no protruding claws.

Adult leatherbacks are huge, with carapace lengths ranging from 145-165 cm (57-65 inches), and weights between 350-450 kg (770-990 lbs). They have pronounced pointed cusps on their jaws that help them bite and hold their preferred food: jellyfish. Leatherbacks usually have a pronounced pink spot on the top of their heads, above their pineal gland. These pink spots are unique and can be used to identify individuals using photo identification techniques.

Leatherbacks are known to migrate great distances, often crossing entire ocean basins several times a year. Leatherbacks prefer wide sandy beaches that are close to deep water, and thus most leatherback nests in North Carolina have occurred near Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, or Cape Fear (Bald Head Island). Starting about 30 days after mating, reproductively active leatherback females will emerge from the ocean at night to lay their eggs deep in the sand above the high tide line. An individual female will lay between 4-8 clutches of eggs in a single season, nesting every 10 days or so. The average clutch size for leatherbacks is about 80 eggs, although in addition leatherback nests usually contain several dozen misshapen “yolkless” eggs. Incubation is temperature dependent, but is usually about 60 days in the middle of the summer. Hatchlings will emerge from the nest cavity under the cover of darkness, and scramble for the ocean, where they will remain for 15-30 years until they reach maturity. One mystery about this species is the location of their developmental habitat. Juvenile leatherbacks are rarely observed in the wild.

Learn more by reading the Leatherback Sea Turtle Wildlife Profile.

The leatherback sea turtle is classified as a nongame species. It is a federally and state-listed endangered species. Because leatherback sea turtles are a protected species, it is illegal to kill, harm, collect, harass or sell them. The leatherback sea turtle also is a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan.

There are no reported problems with this species. 

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission coordinates the N.C. Sea Turtle Nest Protection Project, which is a network of cooperators and volunteers along the entire oceanside coastline. Each day between early May and the end of August, nearly every mile of sandy beach is checked for newly laid sea turtle eggs, and any found are marked off and protected during incubation. Data are collected on the number and fate of nests, which help improve our understanding of population trends and provide insight into better management practices. Biologists with the Commission work closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries on minimizing incidental capture of leatherback sea turtles in dredges and fishing gear.

You can help protect sea turtles by:
• Using red filters on flashlights when on the beach at night
• Leaving sea turtles nests alone
• Turning off all outside lights that face the beachfront during nesting season
• Keeping pets on a leash
• Reducing beach traffic around sea turtles nests to prevent nest compaction
• Disposing of trash in an appropriate manner
• Taking care when navigating watercraft to prevent turtle collisions and injuries
Volunteering with the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage network to monitor nests during the season.