Have you ever searched out of curiosity for who the crownless king of the turtle world is? If the answer is yes, then the question would have led you to find out fascinating facts; yet if you dug a little deeper, it would be empathy over amazement for sure.
He is there, wandering in the deep turquoise waters of oceans. His eyes have witnessed all devastation down there; which we, humans pretend not to see. Maybe he is trying to say something out loud to humankind which we so miserably pretend not to hear. It is high time to listen to the lachrymose pleading of the creature in the eye of a child of mother nature.
Who is this giant in the sea, awaiting the attention of all thoughtful human hearts?
About the species
- Leatherback turtle/ Leathery turtle/ Luth/ Trunk back turtle – Dermochelys coriacea is the largest turtle in the world. They are widely distributed through the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans but the population is declining throughout its range.
- These pitiful giants hold the 4th place in the list of heaviest modern-day reptiles,
- Weight: 750-1000 pounds
- Length: 5-6 feet
- Lifespan: quite unknown but according to available evidence 50 years or more (if humans do not intervene with their survival)
As their name implies, they are the only turtle species in the sea without scales (except in hatchlings) and a hard shell. In place, they have tough rubbery(leathery) skin composed of cartilage-like tissues. The upper side of the body is black-brown in colour with pinkish-white colouring on the underside. Body shape resembles a teardrop. The 7 distinct ridges extend along the length of the body over the carapace which is dark grey or black with white spots. The shell consists of small interlocking dermal bones beneath their skin over a large connective tissue of fat. All flippers are without claws. The front pair is longer and larger while the rear pair is shorter and paddle-shaped.
Special behavior patterns and unique physical features of the species
They have a unique blood circulation to their bones and cartilages which is an adaptation to maintain their body temperature to stay several degrees above the water temperature, allowing them to tolerate cold. They are highly migratory overall marine reptiles making both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific crossings. Simply, they take fascinating migration journeys over 10 000 miles a year. The determined creatures cover all this distance between nesting and foraging grounds, proving to us nothing other than the wonder of nature. Their diving skills are even more incredible. They are among the deepest divers among most marine mammals by being able to dive to mysterious depths of around 4000 feet. Male turtles spend all their life in the sea while females come to nesting beaches to lay billiard ball-shaped eggs and lay around 100 eggs in one cluster. Juvenile females when they come to the beach, leave rut-like patterns on the sand of a large area. Above all, the most magnificent fact about their body is the mouth with backwards-pointing spines that help them retain gelatinous prey; most preferably it is jellyfish for them.
Why do they matter?
Leatherbacks are the only living member of the family Dermochelyidea that existed in their current form since the age of dinosaurs. Just imagine the complete vanishing of those who witnessed the wonders of the ancient earth! They were there beholding all deadly events (that we, humans can only imagine); yet managed to survive as a species. If so, is it not pathetic that they are facing the risk of complete disappearance due to our own misconduct?
On the other hand, cherishing them is a matter of paramount importance since they are endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The numbers are declining precipitously over the past 3 generations. Above all, the Pacific leatherbacks are facing a greater risk of extinction. They are fundamental links in the marine ecosystem and dune system that help to keep populations of some organisms in check. For example, as they consume large amounts of jellyfish, they are contributing to ecosystem stabilization. Dune vegetation can grow and become stronger with the proteins of turtle eggshells which help protect the beach from erosion. Furthermore, they even serve as a vital source of income from ecotourism in coastal communities.
Threats for the ‘giants’ & who to be blamed?
- By-catching in fishing gear
- Loss and degradation of nesting habitats
- Climate change
- Vessel strikes
- Ocean pollution
- Direct harvest of turtles and eggs
By-catching refers to the unintended catching in fishing nets (gillnets/ trawls/ longlines/ vertical lines/ traps) resulting in drowning or injuries when they swallow hooks or entangle, ultimately leading to death or debilitation.
Along with the development in the human world, the turtle world is so desperately deteriorating. Their tranquil nesting grounds are turning crowded. The use of artificial lighting, constructions, vehicle traffic, and other human activities on beaches make them hesitant to nest. Moreover, nesting beaches undergo inundation and erosion when sea levels rise as a result of global warming directly affecting them. Nests are washed away. When global temperature increases, the climate warms resulting in changes in their morphology too. Increased sand temperature is lethal for eggs and reduces the number of viable hatchlings produced. If not, it alters the male: female ratio produced. Vessel strikes that are more prominent near ports and waterways adjacent to developed cities should also be taken into serious account. Should animals, the truest essence of nature die from human leisure activities? Time is ripe for us to rethink our deeds.
Similarly, an increase in pollution of nearshore and offshore habitats, close to highly industrialized cities also degrade their habitats. When the pollutants are discarded into the sea, marine life is directly under threat. These poor creatures ingest marine debris mistaking them for food (Balloons, plastic bags, floating oil, tar), or else become entangled.
Apart from the threats in the modernized world, they are threatened by some of the traditional rituals as well. They are historically killed for meat; eggs are collected for consumption. Their shells were extracted for various recreational activities. Currently, these are under control in many parts of the world.
None of these is out of hand once we dedicate a little more towards nature. While the relevant authorities set up required rules and reinforce the existing ones, we can contribute our own. Pointing fingers at others will never go a long way since we all are responsible either directly or indirectly for every bit of dilemma. Waiting for someone else to make the initial leap would be futile since immediate action is mandatory at the moment.
How can we contribute towards conservation?
- Reduce ocean trash and open dumping
- Protect habitats
- Keep distance when observing
- Report marine life in distress
Humans preoccupied with self-centred desires do not bother to think about what happens to the garbage they dispose of on streets so blindly. They have no second thoughts on the consequences. Are we aware that those reach waterways, get added to groundwaters, and end up in the sea? The majority of us are unaware that not only polythene and plastics; even balloons we release can end up in sea that turtles mistake for their favourite prey; jellyfish. Therefore, refraining, reusing, and recycling are necessary. We are also responsible to keep their nesting beaches safe and dark at night. Constructions and recreational equipment (chairs, umbrellas) that become obstacles for emerging hatchlings should be removed. Vehicle driving should be banned on nesting beaches as they create ruts on the sand.
How many of us have ever thought that even a sandcastle we make on beaches would obstruct the natural procedures that make them deter from coming to the shore?
Likewise, we should be mindful to maintain our distance when observing. Our pleasure should never intimidate them. Nesting animals, nests, and hatchlings should never be disturbed. Feeding and touching wild animals is going beyond nature’s boundaries making them change their natural behaviours and become more susceptible to harm. Further, when boating we need to be mindful to “Go slow! Sea turtles below!”
Last of all, if an injured, stranded or entangled leatherback is encountered; let us be quick to contact the relevant professionals. Tiny drops of change and precautions might cost little for us but those would indeed be the initial steps for repaying our debts to mother nature. One would argue that extinction has been a part of evolution throughout millions of years but think of species perishing away from the earth due to abrupt changes made by humans! They will be gone forever, but will we survive? Will the disappearance of leatherbacks not erode the diversity on the blue planet?
Thus, on a final note; let us keep a little reminder that loss of species diversity would make us all vulnerable in near future.
By. Rtr. Ruwangi Amarasooriya
- Infographic post by: Rtr. Theshani Abeysuriya