May 28, 2019
Sea turtles are charismatic animals. For more than 100 million years, they have been roaming the seas, covering vast distances across the world’s oceans, and filling a vital role in the balance of marine habitats.
Today, seven species of sea turtles are recognised and can be found in every ocean around the world – six of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Keep reading to find out more about these sea turtle species and what sets them apart from each other.
The largest of all sea turtles and one of the largest reptiles on earth, leatherbacks range in size from 4-8 feet in length and weigh between 225 and 900 kg. They’re also the oldest of all sea turtle species – they’ve been around for more than 150 million years!
Leatherbacks look different than other sea turtles in that their skin is dark and is covered with white or pink spots and that they have a singular shell that’s distinctively marked with five ridges as opposed to plated shells that you see on other sea turtles. Their shell is mainly cartilage with small pieces of bone, covered with their leathery skin, which allows them to withstand the pressures of deep diving to over 3,000 feet!
Leatherbacks are unique because their main food is jellyfish. Adult leatherbacks live solitary lives, except occasionally when they gather in groups to feed in areas where there is an abundance of large of jellyfish.
The green turtle is the second largest after the leatherback – weighing up to 225 kg and reaching four feet in length.
Adult green turtles are the only herbivores in all sea turtle species, feeding on sea grasses, seaweeds, algae, and other forms of marine plant life. Thanks to their sharp and finely serrated beak, green turtles are perfectly adapted for grazing in seagrass beds and scraping algae off of hard surfaces. This diet gives their fat a green tinge, which is how the species got its name.
If you ever fancy seeing the green turtle on dry land, you’ll be glad to hear that it’s the only species to come on shore regularly to bask – in Hawaii and in some areas of Australia.
The loggerhead turtle is one of the larger species of sea turtles. This species is reddish-brown in colour and has a very large head. They can be found throughout temperate and tropical regions of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans.
Loggerheads can weigh up to 180 kg – which is about 30 times as heavy as a bowling ball! – and measure up to 4 feet. They also have the strongest jaw muscles of all sea turtle species at around 900 psi, which enables them to eat hard-shelled prey such as crabs, conchs, and whelks. Other than that, their diet also consists of mollusks and jellyfish.
The flatback turtle gets its name from its unique flattened carapace, which is pale greyish-green in colour and easily distinguishable from the curved shells of other sea turtle species.
The flatback turtle is an omnivorous species, but mainly eats a carnivorous diet very rarely feeding on vegetation.
An adult flatback weighs around 90 kg and is approximately 3 feet in length. They have the smallest distribution of all the species, and they breed and nest only in the coastal waters of Australia. Due to the remoteness of much of their habitat, they’re the least studied of the sea turtle species.
Considered by many to be the most beautiful of sea turtles for the colorful tortoiseshell pattern on their carapace, the hawksbill turtle is named for the shape of their beak, which looks similar to the beak of a raptor
One of the smaller sea turtles, hawksbills grow to around three feet long and can weigh up to 90 kg. They spend their time in coral reefs, rocky areas, lagoons, mangroves, oceanic islands, and shallow coastal areas. Hawksbill turtles almost exclusively feed on sponges, including their needle-like skeleton!
The second smallest of all species, the olive ridley turtles weigh between 34 and 45 kg, and can reach roughly 2½ feet in length. They are named after their pale green carapace and are by far the most abundant of sea turtle species.
In terms of their diet, olive ridley turtles eat mostly invertebrates like crabs, shrimp, rock lobsters, jellyfish, and tunicates, although some will eat primarily algae too. They are found in tropical regions around the world.
At 30 inches long and weighing up to 100 pounds, the Kemp’s ridley is the smallest sea turtle species. It’s named after Richard Kemp, a Florida fisherman who discovered this species in 1880.
Kemp’s ridley turtles are coastal turtles and found in temperate to subtropical waters in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. They’re most often found in habitats with sandy or muddy bottoms where it is easy to find prey.
In the 1960’s, the Kemp’s ridley was on the brink of extinction. Thanks to strict protection laws which protected their nesting beaches in Mexico and reduced accidental capture in fishing gear, the species’ population is slowly but surely recovering from only 200 nesting individuals in the 1980’s to an estimated 7,000 – 9,000 individuals today.
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