What do leatherback sea turtles eat? 30 Varieties you should know

Ever wondered what’s on the plate for leatherback sea turtles? These ocean giants are like the rockstars of the sea, cruising through waves with their cool leathery shells. But let’s get down to the important stuff – their foodie preferences! So, what do leatherback sea turtles eat?

It turns out, their menu is more than just a random assortment of ocean snacks. On this page, we will dive into the intriguing world of these flippered foodies and discover the tasty treats that keep them swimming strong in our vast oceans. Get ready for a delicious journey into the dining habits of leatherback sea turtles.

What do leatherback sea turtles eat? 30 Varieties you should know

What do leatherback sea turtles eat

Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) have a diverse diet that primarily consists of jellyfish, but they are known to consume a variety of other organisms as well. Here are 30 things that leatherback sea turtles may eat:

  1. Jellyfish: The primary component of their diet.
  2. Sea Jellies: Various species of jellyfish.
  3. Comb Jellies: Another type of gelatinous marine organism.
  4. Salps: Gelatinous, barrel-shaped planktonic tunicates.
  5. Pyrosomes: Colonial organisms made up of small zooids.
  6. Ctenophores: Comb jellies, which are translucent, gelatinous marine animals.
  7. Squid: Particularly small squid species.
  8. Cuttlefish: Cephalopods related to squids and octopuses.
  9. Octopus: Another cephalopod that leatherbacks may consume.
  10. Shrimp: Various species of small crustaceans.
  11. Crabs: Small crabs may be part of their diet.
  12. Sea Urchins: Echinoderms with spines.
  13. Sea Cucumbers: Echinoderms with elongated bodies.
  14. Small Fish: Leatherbacks may consume small fish species.
  15. Anemones: Cnidarians with stinging tentacles.
  16. Corals: Some leatherbacks may feed on coral polyps.
  17. Sea Pens: Soft coral colonies resembling old-fashioned quill pens.
  18. Hydroids: Small, predatory marine animals related to jellyfish.
  19. Sargassum Seaweed: Floating brown algae that provides habitat and potential food.
  20. Seagrasses: In some cases, leatherbacks may graze on seagrass.
  21. Macroalgae: Large seaweeds that may be part of their diet.
  22. Sea Stars: Echinoderms that may be prey for leatherbacks.
  23. Sea Snails: Some leatherbacks may consume small snails.
  24. Sea Slugs: Nudibranchs and other marine gastropods.
  25. Sponges: Simple aquatic animals with porous bodies.
  26. Plankton: Small organisms that float in the water.
  27. Fish Eggs: Leatherbacks may consume the eggs of various fish species.
  28. Algae: Microscopic and macroscopic forms of algae.
  29. Tunicates: Marine filter-feeders, also known as sea squirts.
  30. Bryozoans: Aquatic invertebrates that form colonies.

Please know that the availability of these food sources can vary depending on the leatherback sea turtle’s location and the specific environmental conditions. Additionally, their preference for jellyfish makes up a significant portion of their diet.

Primary food sources

The primary food source for leatherback sea turtles is jellyfish. These turtles are highly specialized predators adapted to feed on gelatinous organisms. They have distinctive adaptations in their mouth and throat, including backward-pointing spines called papillae, which help them capture and consume jellyfish efficiently.

While jellyfish make up the majority of their diet, leatherback sea turtles can also consume a variety of other gelatinous organisms. This includes different species of sea jellies, comb jellies (ctenophores), and other soft-bodied invertebrates. Their feeding habits are opportunistic, and they may consume other types of prey if available in their habitat.

Leatherback sea turtles are considered keystone species in marine ecosystems due to their role in controlling jellyfish populations. They help maintain a balance in the ocean food web by preventing jellyfish from overpopulating and negatively impacting other marine organisms.

Also, the availability of food sources can vary depending on the turtle’s location and the specific environmental conditions of its habitat. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect leatherback sea turtles and ensure the preservation of their essential role in marine ecosystems.

Importance of Jellyfish in Leatherback Diet

What do leatherback sea turtles eat

Jellyfish play a crucial role in the diet of leatherback sea turtles, and their consumption is of significant importance for several reasons:

  1. Energy Source: Jellyfish provide a substantial source of energy for leatherback sea turtles. The high lipid content in jellyfish helps these turtles meet their energy requirements, particularly given the large size and energy demands of adult leatherbacks.
  2. Specialized Adaptations: Leatherback sea turtles have evolved specialized adaptations to feed on jellyfish efficiently. Their unique morphology, including papillae in the mouth and throat, allows them to grasp and swallow jellyfish without being harmed by the stinging cells (nematocysts) that some jellyfish possess.
  3. Ecological Balance: Leatherbacks play a key role in controlling jellyfish populations. By preying on jellyfish, they help maintain a balance in the marine ecosystem. In regions where leatherbacks are abundant, their predation helps prevent jellyfish overpopulation, which can have negative effects on other marine species.
  4. Population Dynamics: The availability of jellyfish can influence the population dynamics of leatherback sea turtles. Changes in jellyfish abundance and distribution can affect the health and reproductive success of leatherbacks, highlighting the interdependence between these turtles and their primary food source.
  5. Conservation Implications: The decline of jellyfish populations, often associated with human activities, can impact leatherback sea turtles. Pollution, overfishing, and climate change can alter the abundance and distribution of jellyfish, potentially affecting the foraging success of leatherbacks. Studying the interactions between leatherbacks and jellyfish can provide insights into the health of marine ecosystems and the impacts of human activities.

Understanding the importance of jellyfish in the leatherback sea turtle diet is essential for conservation efforts. Protecting leatherback sea turtles and their habitats, as well as addressing threats to jellyfish populations, contributes to the overall health and balance of marine ecosystems.

Feeding Behavior and Strategies

What do leatherback sea turtles eat

Leatherback sea turtles exhibit unique feeding behaviors and strategies that are well-adapted to their primary diet of jellyfish.

Here are some key aspects of their feeding behavior:

  1. Filter Feeding: Leatherbacks are considered filter feeders, primarily targeting gelatinous prey such as jellyfish. They use their specialized mouths and throats to create a filter-like system for ingesting and swallowing their soft-bodied prey.
  2. Papillae: Leatherbacks have backward-pointing spines called papillae lining their mouths and throat. These papillae help them grip and swallow jellyfish without getting stung by the nematocysts (stinging cells) present in the jellyfish tentacles.
  3. Open Ocean Foraging: Leatherbacks are known for their ability to forage in open ocean environments, far from coastal areas. This distinguishes them from other sea turtle species that tend to forage in nearshore habitats. Leatherbacks can cover vast distances in search of jellyfish, and their foraging grounds can span across different oceanic regions.
  4. Opportunistic Feeding: While jellyfish are their primary prey, leatherbacks can exhibit opportunistic feeding behavior. They may consume other gelatinous organisms such as sea jellies, comb jellies (ctenophores), and various soft-bodied invertebrates when available.
  5. Deep Diving: Leatherback sea turtles are capable of deep dives, reaching depths of up to 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) or more. This behavior is thought to be related to their search for prey, including vertically migrating jellyfish and other gelatinous organisms in the water column.
  6. Long-Distance Migration: Leatherback sea turtles are known for their extensive migrations between feeding and nesting grounds. They may travel thousands of miles, crossing entire ocean basins in search of suitable foraging areas and nesting beaches.
  7. Temperature Regulation: Leatherbacks are unique among sea turtles in their ability to maintain a higher body temperature than the surrounding water. This adaptation allows them to inhabit a wide range of oceanic environments, including both warm and cold waters where jellyfish are abundant.

Understanding the feeding behavior and strategies of leatherback sea turtles is crucial for their conservation. Threats such as entanglement in fishing gear, ingestion of marine debris, and habitat loss can impact their foraging success and overall survival. Conservation efforts aim to address these threats and protect the essential habitats and prey resources needed by leatherback sea turtles.

Threats to their food sources

Jellyfish and other gelatinous organisms, which constitute the primary food sources for leatherback sea turtles, face various threats in marine environments. These threats can consequently impact the abundance and availability of food for leatherbacks. Some of the significant threats to the food sources of leatherback sea turtles include:

  1. Overfishing: Overfishing can disrupt the balance of marine ecosystems by reducing the populations of fish and other marine species that prey on jellyfish. Additionally, the removal of certain fish species can lead to an increase in jellyfish populations, as their natural predators are reduced.
  2. Climate Change: Changes in sea temperature and ocean currents due to climate change can affect the distribution and abundance of jellyfish. Alterations in temperature and oceanographic conditions can impact the life cycle, reproduction, and migration patterns of jellyfish, influencing their availability as a food source.
  3. Habitat Destruction: Human activities, such as bottom trawling and other destructive fishing practices, can damage the seafloor and disrupt the habitats of jellyfish and other gelatinous organisms. Destruction of these habitats can result in a decline in food resources for leatherback sea turtles.
  4. Pollution: Pollution, including plastic debris, chemicals, and other contaminants, poses a threat to jellyfish and their habitats. Ingestion of plastic by jellyfish can be harmful to both the jellyfish themselves and the turtles that consume them.
  5. Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs): Some species of harmful algae can proliferate and form toxic blooms, known as harmful algal blooms (HABs). These blooms can have detrimental effects on jellyfish and other marine life, leading to reduced food availability for leatherback sea turtles.
  6. Ocean Acidification: The absorption of excess carbon dioxide by the oceans can lead to ocean acidification. This phenomenon can affect the survival and abundance of plankton, a primary food source for jellyfish, ultimately impacting the leatherback’s food chain.
  7. Bycatch: The accidental capture of jellyfish and other non-target species in fishing gear, known as bycatch, can directly reduce the availability of these organisms for leatherback sea turtles. Bycatch is a significant threat to many marine species and can have cascading effects on the marine food web.

Addressing these threats to jellyfish and their ecosystem is crucial for the conservation of leatherback sea turtles. Efforts to implement sustainable fishing practices, reduce pollution, and mitigate climate change impacts can contribute to maintaining healthy populations of both the leatherback sea turtle and its primary food sources.


What do leatherback sea turtles eat? Leatherback sea turtles have a specialized diet primarily composed of jellyfish. Their feeding behaviors are adapted to efficiently consume these gelatinous organisms, and their mouths and throats feature unique papillae that protect them from the stinging cells of jellyfish tentacles.

While jellyfish make up the majority of their diet, leatherback sea turtles are also opportunistic feeders, consuming various other gelatinous organisms and occasionally small fish.

The conservation of these endangered turtles relies on understanding and addressing threats to their food sources, including overfishing, climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, harmful algal blooms, and bycatch. Protecting the delicate balance of their marine ecosystems is essential for the survival of leatherback sea turtles and the preservation of their distinctive feeding strategies.