Family Dermochelyidae contains just one living species and that is the Dermochelys coriacea (leatherback sea turtle). This is the largest turtle in the world as well as the largest reptile.
As such, Dermochelyids are the largest reptiles in the world. They are also the largest turtles.
Family Dermochelyidae is included in the kingdom Animalia which is composed of all animals. Kingdom Animalia is multicellular and relies on other organisms for nourishment and such members of Animalia are referred to as heterotrophs.
Dermochelyidae is also a member of the phylum Chordata. Chordates include animals that have a notochord during part of the animal’s development.
In dermochelyids, the notochord is replaced by a vertebral column after embryonic stages.
Due to Dermochelyidae having a vertebral column, they are part of the subphylum Vertebrata.
Family Dermochelyidae is also part of class reptilia. This class includes Crocodilia (crocodilians), Lepidosauria (lizards, snakes, amphisbaenians, tuatara, and relatives), Testudines (turtles), and Aves (birds). Finally, Dermochelyidae is part of the order Testudines which includes all turtles.
There is a single extant species in Dermochelyidae and a single extant genus. There are, however, 5 extinct genera.
These are †Arabemys, †Psephophorus, †Cosmochelys, †Cosmochelys, and †Eosphargis. The extinct species include Psephophorus polygonus, Psephophorus terrypratchetti, Psephophorus californiensis, Psephophorus eocaenus, Psephophorus calvertensis, Arabemys crassiscutata, Eosphargis breineri, Mesodermochelys undulatus.
The dermochelyid is a pelagic animal that travels across the world from its feeding sites to its nesting sites. They can be found in temperate, subarctic, and tropical waters although they nest solely in the tropics.
Dermochelyidae can be found farther north than any other marine turtle and can even be found as far north as Nova Scotia and is the only turtle found in Nova Scotia.
Family Dermochelyidae is known to nest in the Caribbeans in places such as Costa Rica, Belize, Panama; Guyana; French Guiana; Suriname; Thailand; Marino Las Baulas in Guanacaste; West Africa in places like Ghana; U.S. Virgin Islands; and Puerto Rico. these aren’t the only places where these turtles nest.
Dermochelyids are marine turtles and only come to shore to nest.
As dermochelyids do not have powerful crushing jaws they usually eat soft-bodied animals mostly jellyfish and salps. dermochelyid is carnivorous and feeds almost exclusively on jellyfish.
However, they may incidentally eat other marine invertebrates such as mollusks, crustaceans, cephalopods, snails, sea urchins, cnidarians, and echinoderms, marine worms, and zooplankton. They also incidentally feed on fish.
There is little to no information on the lifespan of dermochelyids. However, it has been estimated by Spotila et al. (2000) that these marine animals may live to be 30 years.
The family Dermochelyidae was first documented by the Austrian biologist Leopold Joseph Franz Johann Fitzinger in 1843.
dermochelyid are huge turtles and can reach weights of over 800 kg and lengths of 244 cm. As you can see, they are gigantic creations.
Their caprice is leathery which gives the only extant species its common name. The species has keels on the carapace.
The sex of the hatchling is determined by the temperature within which the egg incubates. At temperatures above 29.75 degrees Celsius, hatchlings are females.
At temperatures below 28.75°C, hatchlings are males. At a temp[erature of 29.5 °C hatchlings can be male or female.
Table of Contents
Species Within The Family Dermochelyidae
1. Leatherback Sea Turtle
- Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
- Average Length: 57 to 63 inches (145 to 160 cm)
- Average Mass: 551 to 1982 lb (250 to 900 kg)
- Lifespan: 30 to 50+ years
- IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable
The leatherback is named after its leathery back. Instead of a hard shell similar to that of most turtles, the leatherback has a tough leathery carapace (upper shell).
D. coriacea can be found across the world and in all the oceans of the world except the Arctic Ocean, although it nests only on tropical beaches.
Within the Atlantic, D. coriacea can be found across the entire ocean. The range extends from the Cape of Good Hope to the North Sea.
The D. coriacea also forages within the cold waters of the Atlantic which has an abundance of jellyfish that the leatherback feeds on. This includes Newfoundland and Labrador and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence near Quebec.
Within the Atlantic, the leatherback nests in Gabon, the Caribbeans in places such as Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Antigua and Barbuda. In South America, the leatherback nests in French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname. In North America, the species nest in Florida.
The pacific population can be further dived into two – the eastern pacific leatherbacks and the western pacific leatherbacks. The eastern pacific leatherbacks are known to feed in the southern hemisphere.
This includes along the western side of the Central American and the South America coast. They nest mostly in Central American beaches in countries such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, and Mexico.
The other pacific population nests in the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, and Papua. This population can be found foraging in the northern hemisphere in places such as Washington, Oregon, and California all in the United States. They cover a large distance between their foraging sites and nesting sites.
A South China Sea population includes leatherbacks that nest in Malaysia. However, the south china sea population is all but extinct.
This used to be the largest nesting population with 10,000 nests annually however in 2021 only 18 turtles nested with the south china sea population. Thes nests were discovered in southern Thailand.
The Indian Ocean population is known to nest in the Nicobar Islands and Sri Lanka.
The leatherback is known to live almost exclusively in the open ocean. Leatherbacks are known to travel 12,000 miles or 20,000 km in 647 days. From nesting sites to foraging sites.
During the day, the leatherback is in deep waters. During the night, the leather can be found in shallow waters. D. coriacea can even be found foraging in frigid waters such as those found in Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia in Canada.
Leatherbacks can survive in cold by regulating their internal body temperature using special adaptations. This includes a lower surface-to-volume ratio which reduces heat loss, and a thick layer of fat.
They can also reduce their internal body temperature by using extra blood flow to the surface. Because of this, there is a debate as to whether or not leatherbacks are cold-blooded.
Some biologists such as Paladino, O’Connor & Spotila (1990) have suggested that perhaps a new temperature control mechanism has to be defined for the leatherback. One they coin as ‘gigantothermy’.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do dermochelyids make a good pet?
Dermochelyidae can not be kept as pets. This is because they are huge. They need massive space to be comfortable and healthy. This space can only be provided by the ocean. The x can travel thousands of miles to nest. They are also deep-diving and are known to dive as deep as 1230 m, which is below the photic zone. These turtles cannot even be kept alive in zoos.
Is it legal to own dermochelyids as pets?
It is illegal to keep dermochelyids as pets and impossible to care for them in captivity. These turtles can only live in the ocean. These turtles cannot even be kept alive in zoos.
Is it legal to eat dermochelyids or their eggs?
In many places where the dermochelyid nests, they have been hunted for food, and their eggs have been collected for human consumption. In all of these countries where the Dermochelyidae nests, the collection of the eggs or the turtle is considered illegal. However, implementation of these laws is very difficult in many of these coastal areas.
In many countries where the dermochelyid nests, coastal communities are allowed to collect eggs in a sustainable manner as turtle eggs are a crucial part of their cuisine. The collection of the eggs becomes a problem when it is overdone. In some nesting sites, all the nests are dug up and every egg laid is harvested.
Which dermochelyids are endangered?
The only extant member of Dermochelyidae is the leatherback. Although the wild populations of this turtle are decreasing, the species only holds an IUCN Red List status of Vulnerable. This is impressive as most sea turtles are either endangered or critically endangered.
What threats do dermochelyids face?
Leatherbacks face several threats. The turtle itself is sometimes hunted for food.
The extent of this hunting activity is lower than that of other sea turtle species as the meat of leatherbacks is fatty. The eggs are also extensively collected for subsistence.
In many coastal communities where the leatherback nests, the eggs are an integral part of the culinary culture of the people. The eggs are a crucial part of their diet as such eliminating the collection of eggs in these communities is impossible as the communities rely on them for subsistence.
However, the collection of eggs can be regulated so it is done in a sustainable way.
Pollution is also another threat to the species, especially plastic debris. The leatherback feeds almost exclusively on jellyfish which look similar to plastic debris.
As much as 11 pounds of plastic have been found in the digestive system of leatherbacks. Ingesting plastic debris leads to the death of large numbers of specimens.
Leatherbacks are also occasionally trapped in fishing gear. This is accidental as the fishing gears are meant to catch other marine species.
This is termed fisheries bycatch. Since leatherbacks need to breathe air, they drown if they are unable to free themselves. They can also be struck by moving boats and ships.
Coastal development also affects the nesting habitats of these dermochelyids. Beach modification, dredging, and even residential construction degrade the nesting habitats.
Even if the constructions do not change the nesting sites, the presence of artificial lights can disorient the leatherback when it comes to shore to nest.
Are dermochelyids protected under laws?
Dermochelyids are protected under countless national and international laws, conventions, agreements, memoranda of understanding, and treaties.
The species is protected under Annex II of the SPAW Protocol to the Cartagena Convention, the species is also included in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Conservation Measures for Marine Turtles of the Atlantic Coast of Africa., the Memorandum of Understanding on ASEAN Sea Turtle Conservation and Protection, the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Marine Turtles and their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia (IOSEA), the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IAC), and Appendices I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).
What other families is Dermochelyidae closely related to?
Dermochelyids are closely related to the other sea turtle family – Cheloniidae. Both sea turtle families (Dermochelyidae and Cheloniidae) belong to a superfamily- Chelonioidea.
The other sea turtle family is Cheloniidae which includes the Australian flatback sea turtle (Natator depressus), the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), the Olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), and the Olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea).
Although there are just one species within the family Dermochelyidae, this family is still very impressive as it contains the largest turtle and largest reptile on earth in terms of mass.
Dermochelyidae can reach weights of 900 kg. That is the size of some cars.
The leatherback is named for its huge leathery upper shell. While the shell isn’t hard like that of other marine turtles, it offers adequate protection and ensures that the species has no predators.
The dermochelyid is essential to their ecosystems since they regulate the population of jellyfish and allow other marine species to thrive. The leatherback is classified as a keystone species.
A keystone species is a species that is essential to the survival of several other species within the ecosystem. Without the keystone species, the entire ecosystem can cease to exist.
So although Dermochelyidae contains only one species, the family is essential to the earth and humans. An overabundance of jellyfish negatively impacts marine fish farming as leatherbacks eat about 1000 kg of jellyfish individually each year.
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