what do you think of when I say the phrase “the world’s largest turtle”? an ancient shelled beast, dragging its immense bulk slowly across an uninhabited island somewhere while invasive mammals prey on its vulnerable young? well, that’s usually the case, so I’ll forgive you this time but this is your final warning. because the world’s largest turtle is actually a sleek instrument of jellyfish mass murder the size of a fucking sedan.
put your hands together and make sure you have no jellyfish or jellyfish-like objects on your person, because it’s-
I meant that bit about no jellyfish, I will NOT be held responsible for lost fingers!
the Leatherback is a sea turtle, but one built on a scale so over-the-top-absurd that it’s hard to believe this thing is even in the same general class as your humble everyday pond turtle. god looked down into the ocean one day and told the Leatherback to tone it down a bit because it was making whales feel inadequate. but the Leatherback did not, because the only emotion they can feel is a burning hunger for the living flesh of jellyfish.
and (almost) none of this is an exaggeration, because Leatherbacks can grow to over seven feet long, (as long as Mr. Shaquille O’Neal if you politely asked him to lie down) and can weigh over 1500 pounds! (as much as one grand piano and then half of another grand piano) that’s too large to park on the street in some cities. this incredible size makes them the third largest reptile on the planet, behind a couple of crocodiles who don’t know what they have going for them.
those crocodiles also don’t know that you never want a Leatherback to be directly behind you.
Leatherbacks inhabit every tropical and temperate ocean in the world, and are also sometimes called Luths. (luth is an old-timey bullshit word for “lute”.) they got both names because they lack the traditional hard shell of most turtles, instead having a shell made of thick leathery hide stretched over a bone scaffolding. kind of like an umbrella, I guess, if the umbrella was the size of a car and also very much wanted to bite you. this leathery shell gave Leatherbacks their common name, and also kind of looks like a lute if you’re an 18th century sailor and half-blind from scurvy.
this light flexible shell makes Leatherbacks much lighter, faster, and more agile than a traditional sea turtle. and they abuse the HELL out of this, let me tell you.
a bunch of griefers, that’s what they are.
you don’t normally think “jesus christ that thing can really move” when you think about a turtle, but Leatherbacks are a definite exception. we’re talking speeds upwards of Mach Fuck and well into Dude, Holy Shit territory, here.
Leatherbacks generally cruise along at a fairly zippy 6 mph, but they can and do reach upwards of 22 mph when they feel like it. this might not seem that fast, but imagine an armored aquatic tank bearing down on your feeble human body faster than you can run. and if sheer speed alone doesn’t impress you, Leatherbacks are also capable of turning on a dime. there’s no escape from these incredible ocean bastards!
hold me closer, ocean bastard.
that’s right, Leatherbacks are fast, agile, and extremely aggressive.
adult Leatherbacks have been known to go after sharks, dolphins, human divers, other sea turtles, dogs, and basically anything else that enters the Eternal Turtle Rage zone. they’ve even gone after boats full of terrified researchers!
and you absolutely DO NOT want this to be happening to you, because Leatherbacks pack a gigantic and powerful beak that can snip your arms off like an arborist pruning a sapling. their monstrous bite shears through flesh, bone, and anyone or anything unlucky enough to be on the wrong end of the Leatherback on a bad day. their rage is unyielding and unending.
Leatherback don’t care, Leatherback SMASH.
but usually Leatherbacks aren’t disassembling boat engines with their terrible beak, but horking down huge amounts of soft-bodied animals like jellyfish, squid, and tunicates. they often dive to depths of over 4,000 feet to get these squishy lunches, which is far deeper than any other reptile can manage. the deep ocean is just too cold for other sea turtles to manage, so how do Leatherbacks do it? well, it’s simple: they’re warm-blooded.
Leatherbacks keep a constant body temperature up to 32 degrees higher than the surrounding sea water. this allows them to be active, vicious predators ready to attack a boat full of innocent researchers at a moment’s notice. but what’s REALLY weird is how they pull this body heat trick off- instead of modulating their metabolism like a mammal does, they stay warm by just never sitting fucking still.
they’ve had too much coffee today, and everyday, and forever.
Leatherbacks are actively moving almost all the time, a trait almost never seen in a reptile. instead of resting often and conserving their energy like other turtles, Leatherbacks just thrash all over the place like caffeinated toddlers and use the heat generated by their muscles to warm their bodies. it’s estimated that Leatherbacks are actually holding still and at rest just 0.1% of the time!
but this weird trick works really well and offer similar results to a more traditional warm-blooded system like your own! and to top this party of bizarre body functions and eternal turtle rage, the inside of their beaks and throats are hyperspecialized to help them hold on to soft, slippery, squishy animals they eat so much of.
they got spikes in there, is what I’m saying.
*distant jellyfish screams*
but through no fault of their own, Leatherbacks are in trouble. and it’s because we keep wrecking their nests and throwing plastic into the ocean. Leatherbacks lay their eggs in the sand like other sea turtles, and these eggs are often either dug up deliberately or accidentally stepped on despite their protected status. but it’s the plastic that’s the real problem.
as I’ve said, Leatherbacks like to eat jellyfish. and if you’re a sea turtle, a floating plastic bag just looks like a new and possibly delicious flavor of jellyfish. but unfortunately for Leatherbacks, eating enough plastic bags will kill you. (please don’t try this one at home.)
Leatherbacks need their breeding beaches to be better protected, but they also need people to quit throwing trash in the ocean. so the next time you’re on a protected turtle beach, watch where you step, and WATCH WHERE YOU THROW YOUR TRASH. hopefully these bad-tempered reptilian powerhouses can make a full recovery if we all keep this in mind. thanks, Leatherback! please do NOT bite me.
Leatherback thank you! Leatherback NOT bite your arms off.
thanks for reading! you can find the rest of the Weird Biology series on my tumblr here, or check out the official archive at weirdbiology.com!
Y’all, please listen to this song. This is Mongolian folk rock by a new band called the HU, it’s the only song they’ve got out so far but it is a strong start, holy shit.
According to one of the comments on the video, it’s sung from the perspective of the spirits of the ancestors, who are lamenting that politicians aren’t keeping their word, Mongolians are discriminating against each other over their provincial origin or bloodline, and the traditional wisdom of the elders is being lost. The English translation in the captions isn’t great, but you really don’t need it to enjoy the song. This is going to be stuck in my head all weekend.