Leatherback Turtle

November 21st 2014

Leatherback Turtle

Article originally published in the Assynt News during November 2014

Leatherback Turtle October 2014

Bruce and George must have got a bit of a shock when they were bringing up their creels last month. Entangled in the ropes was a huge dead leatherback turtle – almost two metres long. Fortunately they had the foresight to tow the turtle to Lochinver harbour where harbour staff informed the vets in Inverness.

It is one of five dead leatherback turtles that were reported on the west of Scotland within a two week period in October – an unprecedented number of turtles in such a short period. The others were found washed up dead on the coast near Elgol on Isle of Skye, the Isle of Coll. A third was found also entangled in creel ropes on the east coast – this time at Dunbar. A fifth unconfirmed dead turtle was also reported from Scotland. A live sighting of a leatherback turtle was seen in Loch Gairloch in August.

Readers of the Assynt News may be interested to know that the post mortem report on our turtle has just been released by the vets at the Scottish Agricultural College in Inverness. This confirmed that he died of drowning due to entanglement in creel ropes in deep waters (55 metres). The report also states that it was a male and was in good condition with evidence of recent feeding. Several hundred small copepods (shrimp) were present in the chyme, possibly themselves prey of jellyfish which had subsequently been eaten by the leatherback. There was no notable parasite burden and no indication of plastic or other foreign body in its gut. Plastic bags and balloons are a real threat to turtles which eat them by mistake thinking they are jellyfish.


It was measured at 183cm long and 283Kg in weight. Leatherbacks are the largest turtles in the world and can weigh up to a ton and possible live for up to 100years, but nobody really knows.

A sample of the skin was taken for DNA analysis which would confirm where the turtle hatched and how old it was. However at present this is a costly business and they are waiting for money to be able to send the sample over to the US to get it worked up.

Rod Penrose, of the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), says that they have had a female leatherback that stranded at Pembrey in south Wales which had flipper tags that had been placed on her when she was laying eggs in French Guiana, South America. A later sat-tag study on a live individual off the Irish coast indicated that it too was on its way back to South America. So who knows where our turtle came from.

We know this was a warm summer and huge numbers of jellyfish were reported round our coasts. Jellyfish are the only thing that Leatherback eat and will travel thousands of miles following the blooms of jellyfish. However blooms of jellyfish are not good news. Indeed they are a reliable indicator of a distressed ocean environment. They like disturbed ecosystems with warming water and no predators.

The last leatherback turtle that came ashore in Assynt was in 2003 after being caught in creel ropes near Drumbeg. The skull of that turtle is now in the Assynt Visitor Centre.

Andy Summers

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