The Fascinating World of Leatherback Turtle Mouths

The leatherback sea turtle is a marine giant renowned not only for its size but also for its distinctive mouth and feeding behaviors. Unlike any other turtle, the leatherback’s mouth and throat are equipped with esophageal papillae, sharp, keratinized projections that line their throats and esophagus. These papillae ensure that their main prey, jellyfish, are efficiently captured and prevent their escape once swallowed.

The mouth is critical for the survival of this species, influencing both their feeding strategy and adaptation to the marine environment. These turtles face various threats. So, knowledge of how they feed is essential in directing conservation efforts to ensure their continued survival.

Key Takeaways

  • Leatherback turtles have a unique mouth adapted to their jellyfish diet.
  • Sharp papillae in their throats help with jellyfish consumption.
  • Mouth structure insights are vital for leatherback turtle conservation.

What Makes the Leatherback Turtle’s Mouth Unique?

A leatherback turtle’s mouth. Image: Tom Doyle

Leatherbacks do have a sharp, pointed beak used for capturing prey. However, they lack the crushing plates in their mouths that other turtles possess for chewing.

Inside their mouths, leatherbacks have specialized protrusions called papillae. The papillae vary in size and shape, pointing backward down the turtle’s throat. Their purpose is to help trap slippery prey like jellyfish to be swallowed.

The papillae have a similar texture to cartilage, rather than being composed of keratin like human fingernails. Researchers have not characterized their exact hardness, but the papillae clearly serve an important mechanical function in allowing the turtles to effectively consume soft-bodied organisms like jellyfish.

When we compare the leatherback mouth to other sea turtles, a few key differences emerge. Most other turtle species have crushing plates and ridges in their mouths to help chew food. Leatherbacks lack these chewing adaptations but make up for it with the backward-pointing papillae that line their throat and esophagus.

The papillae enable them to swallow their food whole without injury. This specialization is a key evolutionary adaptation that allows leatherbacks to take advantage of an abundant food source that most other ocean predators avoid – stinging jellyfish. It demonstrates the intricate relationship between the turtle’s anatomy and behavior that ensures its survival.

How Does the Leatherback Turtle’s Diet Influence Its Mouth Structure?

The leatherback turtle’s diet is composed predominantly of jellyfish and other soft-bodied marine invertebrates like tunicates and salps. Jellyfish provide little nutritional value and can be difficult to grasp and swallow. To address these challenges, leatherbacks have evolved specialized mouth structures.

Rather than teeth, leatherbacks have sharp-edged jaws with pointed cusps that allow them to clamp down on slippery prey like jellyfish. Their throats have backward-pointing papillae that line the esophagus and prevent captured prey from escaping. These keratinized, cartilage-based prongs grip jellyfish and ensure they don’t slip back out of the mouth.

Unlike other turtles, the leatherback’s jaw is not attached to its skull, which allows for a stronger bite force. Their bite force is estimated to be around 900 psi.

The papillae also protect leatherbacks from jellyfish stings. Leatherbacks are able to consume entire jellyfish by using their bony plates to crush the stinging cells.

Additionally, leatherbacks have an extremely long esophagus that allows them to continually swallow more jellyfish while previous meals are slowly digested. This is essential given the low nutritional content of jellyfish and leatherbacks’ tremendous size – up to 2000 pounds (1 ton).

So, while jellyfish contain little energy, fat, protein, or calories, they do provide some beneficial fatty acids and antioxidants. Leatherbacks have evolved adaptations like papillae and sharp jaws to maximize intake of this low-quality but abundant food source. Their specialized mouth structure allows leatherbacks to thrive on a predominantly jellyfish diet.

The Challenges of a Jellyfish Diet

Jellyfish compose about 95% of their body with water. To meet their high energy needs, leatherbacks must consume very large amounts of jellyfish – up to 73% of their own body weight per day.

Jellyfish’s soft, gelatinous bodies also pose capturing and chewing difficulties. To overcome these challenges, leatherbacks have specialized structures and features.

Feeding Mechanisms

Sharp, pointed, tooth-like cusps and sharp-edged jaws to pierce and hold jellyfish.

Backward-facing keratinized esophageal papillae, 0.5-2 cm long, lining the throat. These traps consume jellyfish in the esophagus and prevent them from floating back out during feeding.

Scissor-like jaws and papillae allow leatherbacks to swallow jellyfish whole without damaging the delicate structures. Excess water is expelled before swallowing.

By preventing the jellyfish from floating back out, this structure enables efficient feeding despite the watery and slippery nature of the prey.

Toxin Protection

Additionally, jellyfish utilize nematocysts – stinging cells on their tentacles – as defense mechanisms. The leatherback turtle has evolved thick, leathery skin and mucus lining its mouth and throat, safeguarding it from these venomous stingers during feeding.

Researchers believe this resistance allows them to pursue the hazardous jellyfish when other predators may avoid them.

While jellyfish pose nutritional and mechanical challenges, the leatherback is remarkably equipped – from its backward-facing esophageal spines to its toxin-resistant skin and mucus coatings. These evolutionary adaptations pave the way for the turtle’s specialized jellyfish diet.

Internal Features of the Leatherback Turtle’s Mouth and Throat

Inside the mouth and throat of the leatherback turtle, a remarkable structure is present.


The interior of a leatherback turtle’s mouth is not smooth but lined with numerous papillae. These are backward-pointing spines, and their role is crucial for the turtle’s unique feeding habits. The papillae serve multiple functions:

  • Trap and hold slippery jellyfish.
  • Prevent the prey from escaping once ingested.
  • Protect the turtle’s sensitive tissues from the stinging cells of jellyfish.


The esophagus is also lined with backward-pointing papillae. The design of the esophagus follows the same principle as the mouth, aimed at facilitating consumption and digestion. In addition to the functions above, the esophagus papillae:

  • Prevent prey tentacles from getting entangled in the mouth.
  • Guide prey towards the sharp cusps for swallowing.

The papillae-lined esophagus ensures prey moves in one direction during feeding and digestion.

Feeding Mechanics:

The leatherback’s feeding process involves:

  • Capturing jellyfish in its mouth
  • Using its papillae to grip prey as it closes its mouth
  • Swallowing while the papillae and esophagus cusps ensure the food moves towards the stomach

The leatherback’s feeding strategy showcases a fascinating example of evolutionary adaptation. Their internal mouth and throat features are perfectly suited for their diet, contributing to their success as oceanic travelers and predators.

Conservation and Feeding Habits

Jellyfish populations fluctuate naturally over time and are also impacted by climate change and ocean conditions. These fluctuations influence leatherback turtle populations.

Leatherbacks often mistake plastic for jellyfish and ingest it, which can be fatal. According to a study published in Scientific Reports, the amount of plastic debris found in sea turtles increases depending on the cause of death, with the highest amounts found in turtles that died from plastic ingestion.

The leatherback’s situation is pressing. They are part of the 6 in 7 sea turtle species that are designated as endangered or threatened. Except for the loggerhead, which is listed as threatened.

Leatherback populations specifically have declined by an estimated 40% globally over the last three generations. More updated population data is available from NOAA Fisheries.

Conservation efforts are crucial and often target the feeding grounds of leatherbacks. Protecting these areas leads to a safer food supply, which is essential for their survival.

Conservationists are working tirelessly to reduce the prevalence of plastics in the ocean, thereby decreasing the risk of leatherback turtles consuming them.

  • Conservation Priority:
    • Protection of feeding grounds.
    • Reduction of ocean pollution.
  • Feeding Facts:
    • Primary diet: Jellyfish.
    • Challenges: Plastic ingestion that resembles jellyfish.

It’s our responsibility to support these initiatives for the sake of these ancient mariners’ future.

Future Research Needs

Toxin Resistance in the Mouth and Digestion

Leatherback turtles eat primarily jellyfish, which exposes them to potential toxins. A key area for future research is understanding how leatherback turtles resist the toxins found in their prey.

Scientists are curious about the mechanisms behind their ability to ingest and digest jellyfish without harm. Do they possess certain enzymes or biological adaptations that neutralize these toxins? Answering these questions could have broader implications for the fields of biology and biochemistry.

Techniques for Studying Feeding Behavior

Currently, much of what is known about leatherback turtle’s feeding behavior comes from observational studies and satellite tracking. However, there is a need for innovative techniques to observe these creatures as they feed in their natural ocean habitats.

  • Direct Observation: Research using submersibles or remote-operated vehicles could provide new insights.
  • Ingestible Technology: Biologging devices that the turtles could swallow might offer data on their internal processing of food.
  • Environmental DNA: Studying the water for genetic traces of prey could help estimate feeding patterns and preferences without direct observation.

Each technique would contribute differently to the understanding of leatherback turtle biology and ecology. Heightened knowledge in these areas can inform conservation strategies to better protect these ancient mariners. With their population at risk, closing the gaps in knowledge becomes even more critical. The future of leatherback turtles may well depend on the advances made in these research areas.

Similar Posts