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April 20, 2018  |  Login

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
Lepidochelys kempii

What Are They Like?

The most seriously endangered of all sea turtles, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is also the smallest living sea turtle species. It has a top shell, or carapace, that is almost completely round, and averages 24-28 inches (61-71 centimeters) in length. Kemp’s ridley turtles weigh an average of 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms). Well-adapted to a life lived mostly at sea, Kemp’s ridley turtles, like other sea turtles, have streamlined bodies and large flippers. The front flippers have a single claw, and the back flippers may have one or two. The grayish-green carapace of a Kemp’s ridley turtle contains five pairs of horny scales, called scutes. The bottom shell, or plastron, is pale yellow or cream-colored. The head of the Kemp’s ridley has a horny beak suited to cracking open the crustaceans, mollusks and sea urchins it likes to eat.

Where Do They Live?

Rarely venturing into waters more than 160 feet (48.8 meters) deep, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles spend most of their lives at sea where they forage for food. They return to land only between April and June to nest and lay their eggs on sandy beaches. Kemp's ridleys are distributed throughout the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Atlantic seaboard, from Florida to New England. Many are found in the near-shore and inshore waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially off the coast of Louisiana, often in salt marsh habitats.

Did You Know?
Young Kemp’s ridley turtles may spend up to two years—until they are about 8 inches long—in beds of sargassum seaweed, where they can find food and refuge from predators.

How Are Babies Made?

Females reach sexual maturity between the ages of seven and 15. They breed annually and nest an average of one to four times in a season at intervals of 10 to 28 days.  Nesting occurs from May to July, when the turtles appear off the coasts of Mexico (see Behavior, below). After gathering offshore, females swarm to the beach during daylight hours to lay a clutch of approximately 100 eggs in a sandy nest they scoop with their flippers. The eggs incubate for 50-60 days. After incubation, hatchlings emerge weighing about half an ounce (14 grams) and measuring about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) long. This is an extremely dangerous time for young turtles, a favorite food of shorebirds.

What Do They Eat?

The Kemp's ridley sea turtle feeds mainly on crabs, but also eats mollusks, jellyfish, algae or seaweed and sea urchins.

Did You Know?
Temperatures of the sand where the turtles nest determine the sex of the turtle. If the sand’s temperature is below 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the hatchlings will be predominately male; sand temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit produce predominately female hatchlings.

What Do They Do?

There’s a Spanish word, arribada, meaning “arrival,” that describes the amazing sight of Kemp’s ridley nesting behavior. Kemp's ridleys nest in a synchronized display that begins when large groups of females gather off a particular nesting beach near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, during nesting season. No one knows what triggers an arribada, but all at once wave upon wave of Kemp’s ridley females come ashore together to nest. Scientists don’t know for sure, but they theorize that offshore winds, lunar cycles, or the release of pheromones by females may provide the cue for the turtles’ mass arrive. No one disagrees that a Kemp’s ridley arribada is an awe-inspiring event in the natural world. It’s a behavior that’s shared only by the olive ridley sea turtle, also a member of the genus Lepidochelys.

How Concerned Should We Be?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a “Red List” of species in danger globally and listed the Kemp’s ridley turtle as “critically endangered.” The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prohibits any trade in turtles, their shells, their eggs, or any other body part. The most endangered of all sea turtles, Kemp’s ridley’s decline is primarily due to human activities, including the direct harvest of turtle eggs and adult turtles, and the incidental capture of thousands of turtles in the nets of shrimp trawlers and the gill nets, dredges, longlines and pots of other commercial fishing operations in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic. The decline of the Kemp’s ridley has been steep and dramatic, in part because 95 percent of the world’s turtles nest on one small area in Mexico.

What's Being Done?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prohibits any trade in turtles, their shells, their eggs, or any other body part. Today, under strict protection, the Kemp’s ridley population appears to be in the early stages of recovery. Egg collection has been outlawed and nesting habitat protected by the Mexican government. The use of turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on shrimp nets is mandated on all U.S. shrimp trawlers, and since 1989, shrimp cannot be imported into the U.S. from countries whose shrimp fisheries do not use these lifesaving devices. These conservation measures have helped the Kemp’s ridley turtle rebound, with more than 20,000 nests recorded at Rancho Nuevo in Mexico in 2009, and 771 on the Texas coast.  A new draft recovery plan issued for public comment by wildlife agencies of the U.S. and Mexico. Its goal: removing the turtle from the endangered list, once and for all.


Release of Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles: Texas Parks and Wildlife

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