Leatherback Turtle Breeding Ground Protected

When Governor Luis Fortuno recently signed a law designating 1,950 acres of state-owned land on Puerto Rico’s north coast as a nature reserve, the protracted battle of environmentalists against developing the area was brought to an end. With pristine beaches, clear turquoise waters and lush vegetation, the property is considered to be prime real estate, with large hotel groups Marriott International and Four Seasons reportedly having expressed interest in building there. The new ruling prohibits construction of large-scale resorts, but encourages small eco-tourism establishments and activities. This is good news for conservationists, as the new reserve, located north of El Yunque and consisting of two-thirds of the Northeast Ecological Corridor, is one of the island’s prime nesting sites for leatherback turtles – a critically endangered species.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has warned that the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), a species believed to have survived for more than a hundred million years, is currently facing extinction and is listed as CR – critically endangered – on the IUCN Red List. Leatherback turtles are the largest species of sea turtles and the fourth largest reptile. Unlike other sea turtles, leatherback turtles do not have a bony shell and are instead have a carapace (upper section) of leather-like skin. It has a teardrop-shaped body, with large front flippers flattened in shape enabling it to move speedily through water. They are considered to be the fastest moving reptiles on earth, with a speed of 21.92 mph in water recorded in the 1992 Guinness Book of World Records, although on average they swim at a speed of between 1.1 and 6.3 mph. They are also one of the deepest diving marine animals, with depths of up to 4,200 ft within their capabilities. The turtle’s carapace has seven prominent ridges along its back and its entire dorsal area is shaded dark-grey to black with white spots and blotches, while its underbelly is lighter in color. It uses sharp ridges on its upper lip as teeth and has spines in its throat to facilitate swallowing. They feed primarily on jellyfish and other soft-bodies organisms.

Leatherback turtles favor open ocean as their habitat, and choose wide open beaches facing deep water as breeding places to lay their eggs. The hatchlings are extremely vulnerable to attacks by birds, crustaceans, carnivorous mammals and, sadly, humans, as they make their way to the sea. But the battle for survival does not end there, as once in the sea baby turtles continue to be prey for a number of fish species. It is estimated that up to 90% of hatchlings die because of predators. With provisions like the new nature reserve in Puerto Rico more people will be made aware of the importance of conservation, hopefully in time to prevent the leatherback turtle from becoming extinct.