The United States listed the leatherback turtle as an endangered species on June 2, 1970. The leatherback sea turtle is the largest of all living sea turtles and the fourth largest modern reptile behind three crocodilians. It can easily be differentiated from other modern sea turtles by its lack of a bony shell. Instead, its carapace is covered by skin and oily flesh. A settlement filed today in federal court between conservation groups and the National Marine Fisheries Service requires the government to make a final rule protecting critical habitat for the endangered leatherback sea turtle by Nov. 15, 2011. As proposed, the rule will protect sea turtles in part of the area off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. If made final, it would represent the first sea turtle critical habitat ever designated in ocean waters off the continental shelf. On Jan. 5, 2010, the Fisheries Service proposed to designate about 70,600 square miles (45 million acres) of ocean waters as critical habitat for leatherbacks, which have suffered steep declines in recent decades. The proposal responded to a 2007 legal petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and Turtle Island Restoration Network to protect key migratory and foraging habitat for these ancient turtles along the West Coast. On April 19, 2011, the conservation groups sued the government for its delay in finalizing the turtle’s critical habitat.
Leatherback turtles have the most hydrodynamic body design of any sea turtle, with a large, teardrop-shaped body. A large pair of front flippers power the turtles through the water. Like other sea turtles, the leatherback's flattened forelimbs are adapted for swimming in the open ocean. Claws are absent from both pairs of flippers. The leatherback's flippers are the largest in proportion to its body among extant sea turtles. Leatherback's front flippers can grow up to 8.9 feet in large specimens, the largest flippers (even in comparison to its body) of any sea turtle.
The leatherback has several characteristics that distinguish it from other sea turtles. Its most notable feature is the lack of a bony carapace. Instead of scutes, it has thick, leathery skin with embedded minuscule osteoderms. Seven distinct ridges rise from the carapace, crossing from the anterior to posterior margin of the turtle's back.
The leatherback turtle is a species with a cosmopolitan global range. Of all the extant sea turtle species, D. coriacea has the widest distribution, reaching as far north as Alaska and Norway and as far south as the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and the southernmost tip of New Zealand. The leatherback is found in all tropical and subtropical oceans, and its range extends well into the Arctic Circle.
In order to survive, leatherbacks need safe passage during their annual migration and protection of important feeding areas. The Fisheries Service included these elements in the proposed rule, which could limit activities that harm the leatherbacks’ main food source or impede the turtles’ migratory path. Habitat protections for the turtle do not take effect, though, until the agency publishes its final rule.
"The settlement filed today forces the National Marine Fisheries Service to make a long-overdue decision about protecting Pacific leatherbacks when they are in our waters," said Susan Murray, Pacific senior director at Oceana.
The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks can grow to be up to nine feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. Pacific leatherback sea turtles have declined more than 95 percent since the 1980s; as few as 2,300 adult female western Pacific leatherbacks remain. The species dates from the time of the dinosaurs, having survived for 100 million years virtually unchanged.
Every summer and fall, western Pacific leatherbacks migrate from their nesting grounds in Indonesia to the waters of the U.S. Pacific to feed on jellyfish, eating 20 percent to 30 percent of their body weight per day. This 12,000-mile journey is the longest known migration of any living marine reptile. During the trip, leatherbacks run a gauntlet of threats across the Pacific, including capture in commercial fishing gear, ingestion of plastics, poaching, global warming and ocean acidification. Protection of their foraging habitats and migratory corridors is essential to the recovery of this species.
For further information: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2011/leatherback-sea-turtle-07-05-2011.html