Leatherback Sea Turtle
Dermochelys coriacea

* Federal Threatened State Endangered *

Common Name:

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Scientific Name:

Dermochelys coriacea



Dermochelys is derived from the Greek word derma which means "skin" and chelys which means "tortoise".


coriacea is from the Latin word corium which means "leather".

Average Length:

53 - 70 in. (135 - 178 cm), weight 650 - 1,200 lbs. (295 - 544 kg)

Virginia Record Length:

Record length:

74.3 (189 cm), weight 2,016 lbs. (916 kg)

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: This is the largest marine turtle. The carapace length is as great as 244 cm, (96 in.) with an average of 155 cm. It has a weight of 290-590 kg. In VA., the largest leatherback measured was 213 cm (presumably carapace length) and weighed 317 kg. The carapace is tear-dropped or triangular and covered with leathery skin, as opposed to horny scutes. There are 7 longitudinal ridges that divide the carapace into 8 sections and the color is dark brown or black/bluish black with white or yellow spots. Plastron whitish with 5 longitudinal ridges made of enlarged bones in the skin; The limbs are paddle-like (>= body length), clawless and black with white edges *2085,1027,1038,10760*. Immediately beneath the carapace skin of the adult is a continuous layer of mosaic bones a few millimeters thick. These bones are enlarged and thickened along the longitudinal ridges. Leatherbacks can probably exchange gases through their skin as indicated by sphincter muscles in the pulmonary arteries that can divert blood from the lungs to the skin. The oil found within both the skeleton and flesh of this species may lessen decompression problems during rapid diving and resurfacing *8850*. Male leatherbacks have a concave plastron and long tails that protrude further than their hindlimbs *10760*. In the juveniles, the skin is covered with shell scale, and the color is dark brown with yellow keels *2085,1027,1038,10760*. Hatchlings are 55-63 mm carapace length (avg. 58.7) *10760*.

REPRODUCTION: The breeding season varies with location but is not likely to occur in Virginia. Mating occurs in shallow temperate waters and then the females move to nest on certain tropical beaches. The incubation period is 51-74 days, and nesting occurs every 2-3 years with 6 clutches/season, and an inter-nesting period of 10 days. Some females have nested as many as nine times in a season. They nest at night even in rainy weather, and are not easily perturbed. Usually the time on shore is about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. There are from 80-85 normal eggs per clutch and about 30 yolkless eggs. The eggs are spherical and white, from 50-65 mm in diameter and weigh 70-80 grams *2085,1038,8850,10760*. Leatherbacks migrate into boreal waters during warm months to feed but, all nesting areas are tropical *9286*.

BEHAVIOR: Migrations are not known. They are the most pelagic of the sea turtles only coming into shore to nest and occasionally to feed. The hatchlings emerge explosively usually shortly after dark *8850*. This is the only know endothermic living turtle *9286*. This species feeds on soft-bodied pelagic invertebrates, primarily the sea nettle and in Virginia the moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) *9286*. When captured they will fight and make vocalizations. They can dive to a depth of 475 m *10760*.

ORIGIN: The origin of this species is native *10760*.

POPULATION PARAMETERS: Most turtles caught are juveniles and females. Little is known of leatherback population biology *10760*.

AQUATIC/TERRESTRIAL ASSOCIATIONS: This species requires sloping sandy beaches for nesting *2085,1027,1038*. They prey upon jellyfish as a major food source. The greatest threat to this species is egg collecting. They are also subject to wanton slaughter in Guyana simply because they are believed to be useless. In Arabia and India, they are killed and rendered for oil to treat boat timbers. The oil is used to treat respiratory ailments in the British Virgin Islands. They are also killed by longlines and by the ingestion of indigestible materials such as plastics *8850*.

References for Life History

  • 1027 - Carr, A.F., 1952, Handbook of Turtles. Turtles of the United States, Canada, and Baja California, 542 pgs., Comstock Publ. Assoc., Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY
  • 1038 - Pope, C.H., 1939, Turtles of the United States and Canada, 343 pgs., Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY
  • 2085 - Serv., U.S. Fish and Wildl., 1980, Selected vertebrate endangered species of the seacoast of the United States: Leatherback sea turtle, FWS/OBS-80/01.12, 7 pgs., U.S. Dep. Inter., Off. Biol. Serv., Washington, D.C
  • 8818 - Keinath, J.A., J.A. Musick, R.A. Byles, 1987, Aspects of the biology of Virginia's sea turtles: 1979-1986, Virginia J. Science, Vol. 38(4), pg. 329-336
  • 8819 - Bellmund, S, J.A. Musick, R.E. Klinger, R.A. Byles, J.A. Keinath, D.E. Barnard, 1987, Ecology of sea turtles in Virginia, VIMS Special Scientific Report, Vol. 119, 48 pgs., VA Inst. Marine Sci., Coll. Wm and Mary., Gloucester Point, VA
  • 8822 - Lutcavage, M., Musick, J.A., 1985, Aspects of the biology of sea turtles in Virginia. , Copeia 1985, Vol. 2, pg. 449-456
  • 8850 - Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 1985, A recovery plan for marine turtles. , 363 pgs., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta, GA
  • 9286 - Terwilliger, K.T., 1991, Virginia's endangered species: Proceedings of a symposium. Coordinated by the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries, Nongame and Endangered Species Program, 672 pp. pgs., McDonald and Woodward Publ. Comp., Blacksburg, VA
  • 10760 - Mitchell, J. C., 1994, The Reptiles of Virginia, 352 pgs., Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC


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Verified County/City Occurrence

Accomack County
Gloucester County
Hampton City
Norfolk City
Northampton County
Virginia Beach City
Verified in 6 Counties/Cities.


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Virginia is home to 9 native lizard species and two introduced species, the Mediterranean Gecko and the Italian Wall Lizard.


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Virginia has 25 species and subspecies of turtle. Five of these species are sea turtle.