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North Devon in 100 Objects: 55. The Leatherback Turtle

A leatherback turtle.

The leatherback turtle is the largest of the sea turtles, generally around 2m long and weighing around 600kg. They are named for the leathery skin that covers their back instead of a hard shell. Leatherback turtles travel the seas alone hunting for jellyfish and are a rare sight off the west coasts of Britain in the summer months. They are unusual for reptiles in that they have some regulation over their body temperature, and don’t mind the cold too much. This means they can dive to depths of over 1km deep hunting for prey. They have cunning downward facing spines inside their throats to stop their prey from making an escape. Unfortunately they can often mistake plastic bags floating in the sea for jellyfish and so suffer from ocean pollution.

Our turtle arrived here in a dramatic fashion, washed up dead on Abbotsham Beach and “rescued” by RAF helicopter! It was already beginning to decompose when the helicopter picked it up, and it soon became apparent that the “leather” shell would not retain its shape when the flesh rotted down. Fortunately, at the time the museum had a craftsperson, Sarah Montague, volunteering, and she was able to create a measured reconstruction from the carcass.

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