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Do sea turtles eat jellyfish?

Sea turtles are turtles that make the oceans of the world their home and there are seven distinct species. These include olive ridley, kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, hawksbill, green, flatback, and leatherback sea turtles – which are, sadly, all endangered. Each species of sea turtles plays a vital role in marine ecosystems, navigating through coral reefs, shallow waters, and even high latitude regions.

The feeding habits of these turtles range from predominantly carnivorous to predominantly herbivorous. For instance, leatherbacks are predominantly carnivorous, while adult green turtles are predominantly herbivorous.

So what do they eat? Do sea turtles eat jellyfish?

The answer would be a resounding ‘Yes’ — ALL sea turtle species eat jellyfish and for some of them, it’s actually their main source of food. Others only eat jellyfish on their occasion but it’s definitely on the menu.

Even though jellyfish can deliver painful stings, the turtles are able to feed on them with no issues, and it’s a fascinating subject that deserves a closer look. In today’s article, we’ll tell you more about the turtles that eat jellyfish, which one eats them almost exclusively, and even go into how they avoid getting stung.

Do sea turtles eat jellyfish? You betcha, and we’ll tell you all about it!

Sea Turtles That Eat Jellyfish

Sea turtles, also known as marine turtles, include reptiles of the order Testudines that exclusively live in oceanic habitats. They are of the superfamily Chelonioidea and suborder Cryptodira. Chelonioidea includes only sea turtles.

Loggerhead sea turtle

Loggerheads (Caretta caretta)  eat jellyfish from the surface of the ocean when they are available and also when the turtles migrate thousands of kilometers to mate and breed. Jellyfish aren’t their main food source, however.

They also eat other sea invertebrates such as chelicerates, echinoderms, cnidaria, sponges, mollusks, and crustaceans. Fish are also on the menu, but the main foods in the loggerhead’s diet include horseshoe crabs, rock crabs, decapods, bivalves, gastropods, and spider crabs.

Leatherback sea turtle

Leatherbacks are the only sea turtles endemic to cold waters and they may be found in the western Pacific, eastern Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. Leatherbacks eat a LOT of jellyfish, so much so that they help to control jellyfish populations — we’ll tell you more about this shortly in the next section.

They also eat seaweed, fish, and other invertebrates.

Hawksbill sea turtle

The hawksbill turtle, with its love for jellyfish and sensitive spot for coral reefs, navigates through the marine environment, contributing to the health of coral ecosystems.

Hawksbills eat a lot of jellyfish, although not as much as sea sponges. Jellyfish still make up a huge chunk of their diet, depending on the location of their habitat. Other foods they eat a lot include other invertebrates such as shellfish, sea urchins, and crabs. In addition to this, they also eat fish and sea plants.

Green sea turtle

Green sea turtles are also known as green turtles, black turtles, or black sea turtles. Similar to the loggerhead, green sea turtles are found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and they are generally found between latitudes 30°N and 30°S.

Green turtles eat jellyfish, especially when they are juveniles. As adults, they still eat jellyfish, but in much smaller amounts. The adult green turtle’s body fat is green because of the vegetation they consume such as seagrasses (Alismatales).

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle

Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), also known as Atlantic ridley sea turtle, is a rare and endangered turtle endemic to the Atlantic Ocean.

These chelonians eat a decent amount of jellyfish. Juveniles are more likely to feed on them, as they are pelagic surface-feeders. Adults, however, feed mostly on crabs. Other foods they eat include sea urchins, fish, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Olive Ridley sea turtle

Unlike the kemp’s ridley which is rare, the olive ridley is the most common sea turtle.

Jellyfish is one of the most common prey animals of this chelonian. They are generally carnivorous, though, and feed on other animals as well. Some of these include sipunculid worms, rock lobsters, shrimp, snails, crabs, bryozoans, bivalves, slaps, tunicates, and sea urchins.

Although predominantly carnivorous, olive ridley sea turtles also eat seaweed from time to time.

The Australian flatback (Natator depressus) loves eating jellyfish. They are omnivorous but predominantly carnivorous, and in addition to jellyfish they feed on invertebrates such as mollusks, shrimp, and sea cucumbers.

The vegetation they feed on is seagrass, although they rarely eat this when there is live prey to be had.

Want to learn more about sea turtle diets? Click here when you’re done and we’ll tell you all about them!

The Sea Turtle That Eats Jellyfish Almost Exclusively

While all sea turtles eat jellyfish, none eats them as much as leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea). The leatherback turtle almost exclusively eats jellyfish and very little else.

This is very interesting, as jellyfish have little nutritional value, yet the leatherback is the largest turtle in the world — growing to weights of 640 kg or 1410 pounds! Additionally, they travel several thousand miles annually.

They can also thrive in the cold waters of the Canadian Atlantic where no other sea turtles can be found. So, how the heck do such massive and active reptiles thrive on jellyfish, an animal that is 95 percent water?!

Thanks to research by Susan G. Heaslip, Sara J. Iverson, W. Don Bowen, and Michael C. James of Dalhousie University, we have detailed information on the feeding habits of leatherbacks. Researchers attached cameras to 19 of these turtles and were able to track their feeding habits. This groundbreaking study utilized animal-borne video cameras, shedding light on the leatherback’s diet and its interaction with marine species such as the cyanea capillata in Nova Scotia’s stormy weather.

The cameras/GPS trackers were attached when animals came up to breathe and these turtles were tracked off Canada’s eastern coast.

According to data collected, lion’s mane jellyfish made up the majority of the leatherback’s diet. Lion’s mane made up 83 to 100% of the total diet of the leatherback. The other jellyfish the leatherback occasionally consumes is the moon jellyfish  (Aurelia aurita).

The leatherback generally consumed the entire prey and not just the tentacles. The bigger the prey, the longer it took the leatherback to consume it.

In all, the leatherback consumed an average of about 261 jellyfish a day and up to 664 jellyfish a day! In terms of weight, that is an average of 330 kg (727 pounds) of jellyfish a day and up to 840 kg (1851 pounds) a day. The turtle consumed an average of 73 percent of its body weight daily.

The turtle has a hunting success rate of 100%. Once it finds the prey, it has no difficulty catching and eating them. Once the leatherback spots the jellyfish, it takes under a minute to catch up with the prey, and about a minute to consume it.

The leatherback consumes several lion’s mane within a short period, as they are often found in large swarms, and these turtles can eat as many as two every minute.

They consume up to 3 to 7 times the necessary calories to survive. The abundance of jellyfish in the Atlantic waters of Canada allows the turtle to bulk up for the 9,000 km (5592 miles) trip they take to the Indo-Pacific where they mate and breed.

Sea turtles can eat jellyfish without getting stung

turtle eating a jellyfish

As we already know, jellyfish is one of the favorite foods of leatherback turtles. The jellyfish the turtle enjoys most are the common jellyfish and lion’s mane. The common jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) is also known as the moon jelly, moon jellyfish, or saucer hell.

This is one of the most common jellyfish out there, although the lion’s mane is also quite common. Lion’s manes are also known as the hair jelly, arctic red jellyfish, and the giant jellyfish.

Turtles have to travel deep into the ocean to feed on these gelatinous prey. The jellyfish are about 95 percent water, each providing only 21 calories, but the turtles can consume as much as 664 lion’s mane and moon jellies in a day.

That is about 73 percent of the leatherback’s body weight and comes to around 16,000 calories in jellyfish.

How does the turtle eat so much jellyfish without getting stung?

Jellies are highly venomous and their stings are very painful. The venom produced can be damaging and can cause temporary or even permanent paralysis. This venom is delivered by structures known as nematocysts, which are harpoon-like and inject the venom into the body.

The nematocysts are found on the tentacles which, incidentally, the turtles enjoy the most!

When severe enough, the stings can be fatal, and they are harmful to most animals — just not these turtles. The turtle isn’t susceptive to nematocysts, as their scaly skin makes it difficult for the nematocysts to deliver venom into the body.

The leatherback’s jaws, beak-like and made of keratin, are also invulnerable to the nematocysts. The vulnerable part of the turtle, as it eats the jellyfish, is their eyes. The nematocysts CAN sting the eyes, but to prevent this the leatherback simply closes its eyes and shields them as it swallows the jellyfish.

These little adaptations from Nature make it easy for the turtle to eat large volumes of the venomous jellyfish.

Once the jelly enters the turtle, papillae in the esophagus ensure that the jellyfish is pushed further down. The papillae are backwards-pointing spiny protrusions in the throat and mouth of the turtle. Whether the turtle swallows the jellyfish whole or just its tentacles, the food isn’t escaping.

Jellyfish don’t generally survive when turtles eat their tentacles, and the leatherbacks usually tear them to shreds. Jellyfish are more likely to survive attacks from young turtles and may even be able to regrow the tentacles they lose, but with adults, the odds are that the jellyfish will be completely gobbled up.

Turtles Don’t Get High From Eating Jellyfish

A common misconception is that turtles can get high from eating jellyfish. Even well-known pop culture outlets such as Screenrant have mentioned this when addressing the reason behind Crush’s demeanor in the popular Disney movie ‘ Finding Nemo’.

According to the publication, the depiction of Crush is based on the natural high sea turtles get from eating jellyfish and that this sensation is similar to humans getting high on cannabis.

Turtles, however, don’t get high from consuming jellyfish. The nervous systems and receptors in sea turtles are similar to that of humans, however, there is no research to show that turtles can get high from their meals.

While sea turtles can get high off THC or marijuana, Jellyfish simply do not contain any chemicals/properties that can induce psychotropic effects in turtles.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will turtles eat jellyfish?

Yes, all sea turtles eat jellyfish, although the volume may vary. For instance, loggerhead turtles eat some jellyfish but not a very large amount, while jellyfish make up the bulk of the leatherback turtle’s diet.

The jellyfish that sea turtles eat the most are the common jellyfish  (Aurelia aurita) also known as the moon jelly and the lion’s mane jellyfish.

Which animals eat jellyfish?

Apart from sea turtles, several other animals eat jellyfish. Some of these include sea anemones, tuna, swordfish, sharks, chum salmon, sunfish, butterfish, and penguins. Even foxes and birds will eat jellyfish on occasion, although only when they wash up on shore.

What does a sea turtle eat?

Apart from jellyfish, sea turtles mostly eat sea invertebrates and fish. Some invertebrates they eat include horseshoe crabs, rock crabs, decapods, bivalves, gastropods, sipunculid worms, rock lobsters, shrimp, mollusks such as snails, bryozoans, bivalves, slaps, tunicates, sea urchins, and spider crabs.

They also eat seagrass, seaweed, and algae.

Wrapping up

All sea turtles eat jellyfish, although some definitely prefer it more than others. The leatherback turtle, for instance, eats jellyfish almost exclusively, while loggerheads rarely eat them.  Hawksbills consume substantial amounts of jellyfish and young green turtles love them, but adult green turtles don’t!

Both olive’s and kemp’s ridley turtles consume decent amounts of jellyfish, and also flatbacks consume a modest amount of them.

Jellyfish may be toxic and venomous, but they stand no chance against these turtles. The scaly skin of these chelonians protects them from the nematocysts on the jellyfish’s tentacles that inject the toxins. While the turtle’s eyes are still vulnerable, once they are closed the jellyfish has no way to sting them.

Simply put, sea turtles have evolved what it takes to eat all the jellyfish that they like. It’s just another one of Nature’s amazing adaptions!

Did you know that you can go snorkeling with turtles? Check out 27 spots where you can make this dream happen!

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