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BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - Stu­art Black­man

How the leatherback tur­tle got its name, and why shield­bugs smell of marzi­pan

AReach­ing half a tonne in weight, the leatherback tur­tle is a giant among rep­tiles – only a few species of crocodil­ian are larger. It is also re­mark­able for lack­ing the bony cara­pace typ­i­cal of its rel­a­tives. Its ‘shell’ is in fact a layer of tough, rub­bery skin adorned with thou­sands of tiny bone plates. Its sci­en­tific name, Der­mochelys co­ri­acea, trans­lates as ‘leath­ery-skinned tur­tle’. Al­ter­na­tive col­lo­quial names in­clude ‘lute tur­tle’, which may de­rive from the seven ridges along its back, said to evoke the strings of a lute.

Leatherbacks are also un­usual in be­ing spe­cial­ist preda­tors of jel­ly­fish. Fleshy, back­ward-point­ing pro­jec­tions in the mouth and throat help them to han­dle and swal­low their slip­pery prey.

The leatherback has the largest dis­tri­bu­tion of any tur­tle. Though classed as Vul­ner­a­ble, the species can be sur­pris­ingly hardy: one in­di­vid­ual was mon­i­tored swim­ming through Hur­ri­cane Florence.

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