Leatherbacks are the giants of the turtle family, and the heaviest living reptile. If you are walking a Florida beach early in the morning and see a turtle track large enough to have been made by a Volkswagen, it was probably made by a leatherback. The tracks of a leatherback on the beach often measure more than 2 meters (6.5 feet) across. Leatherbacks do not have scutes or plates like most turtles, but are covered with a leathery hide that feels like tough rubber. Leatherbacks are omnivorous but prefer jellyfish.
Leatherbacks grow to 1.7 m (5.5 feet) and can weigh more than 550kg (1200 lb). The back is black or brown, smooth and covered with a continuous layer of black, often white-splattered, leathery skin rather than the hardened plates of other sea turtles. Seven ridges run along the back from front to rear. There are no claws on the limbs.
Leatherbacks are turtles of the open ocean. They are occasionally found in Florida’s shallow bays and estuaries. About 500 leatherbacks nest on Florida’s beaches each year, mostly on the east coast from Cape Canaveral to West Palm Beach. Between April and August females come ashore at night to lay eggs, preferring to nest on long, rock free beaches with coarse sand.
Leatherbacks are classified as endangered, and are fully protected under state and federal law. They are threatened by collisions with powerboats, entanglement in fishing nets, and loss of beach nesting habitat.
Sadly, it is not uncommon to find carcasses of these huge turtles washed up on Florida beaches.
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