With a mouth like that, one would think leatherbacks are taking down massive fish and giant squid. Would you be surprised to know that Leatherback Sea Turtles, one of the world’s largest reptiles, feed almost exclusively on jellyfish? Hundreds of jagged teeth line the turtle’s mouth and esophagus. Their purpose, to prevent those jellyfish from escaping. With a 550lb to 1500lb leatherback needing to consume approximately 73% of its body weight every day, those teeth are essential. Sadly, it was a dead leatherback on Kiawah‘s beach that provided this amazing first-hand look at those amazing teeth.
This adult female washed ashore this week on the western end of Kiawah. SC Department of Natural Resources, assisted by Kiawah Beach Patrol and our Resort Naturalists, turned over this huge turtle so SCDNR Biologists could perform a necropsy. Immediately the tag on the hind end gave a clue as to this animal’s extensive journey. The tag indicated that in the past, scientists had tagged her laying eggs in Trinidad. The necropsy indicated that she was a strong, healthy female who was actively eating a diet of our local Cannonball Jellyfish. Biologists were also able to determine that although she was not carrying eggs at the time of death, she was believed to be reproductively active this season (sea turtles do not nest every year). Unfortunately, the cause of death of this individual could not be determined.
The chance of sighting a live leatherback in Kiawah waters is rare. However, there is an easy task that each and every one of us can do to help protect this endangered species. With jellyfish being the primary food source of these gentle giants, leatherbacks can often confuse plastic bags for their food of choice. Please help us keep all plastic bags out of the ocean and off the beach by depositing them in the trash receptacle found at each of Kiawah’s community boardwalks. To learn more about Kiawah’s sea turtles, join our naturalist on a Night Beach Walk offered weekly throughout the summer.