The Zoologist/4th series, vol 2 (1898)/Issue 690/"The Leathery Turtle" (Dermochelys coriacea)

"The Leathery Turtle" (Dermochelys coriacea) (1898)
by William Lucas Distant

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 2, issue 690 (December, 1898), p. 500–502

4158115"The Leathery Turtle" (Dermochelys coriacea)1898William Lucas Distant


By W.L. Distant.

(Plate V.)

When visiting the South African Museum at Cape Town last October, Mr. Peringuey directed my attention to the carapace of a fine specimen of this Turtle, which had been captured alive on the 20th April, 1896, in Table Bay, on Woodstock Beach, in about two feet of water. It was presented to the Museum by my friend Mr. Casper Keytel, of Cape Town, who had it photographed while in the living condition, and who presented me with a copy of the photograph, which is here reproduced (Plate V.). Such photographs of rare living animals are, zoologically, most important, and prevent misconceptions too often consequent on illustrations taken from Museum specimens. Of this Turtle few really good illustrations are to be found; most of the popular ones—even those in the 'Boston Standard' and "Royal" Natural Histories—are taken from Brehm. Tickell took a drawing from life, but it is somewhat indifferent.

According to Dr. Günther the species is spread throughout almost all the seas of the tropical and temperate regions, having been found in the Mediterranean, on the South Coast of England, in the West Indies, at the Cape of Good Hope, on the coasts of the United States, in Chile, Japan, and the coast of British India.[1] It appears to be scarce on the Australian coasts. McCoy figures a specimen which he describes as "the only one I have known to have occurred on the shores of the colony."[2] Bell includes the species in his ' British Reptiles ' on the authority of Borlase and Pennant.[3] The late Prof. Agassiz, however,

Leathery Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).

expressed his doubts as to whether the specimens collected in these various parts of the world really belonged to one species.[4]

The same authority considered, from a critical examination of the localities where the species is found, and from its frequence in some parts of the Atlantic Ocean, whilst it is only met with accidentally in others, that "it is plain that the West Indies is its home, and that it is not indigenous to Europe, since in three centuries it has not been observed more than nine times in Europe, whereas it is seen at all seasons about the Bahamas."[5]

An interesting account is given by Major S.R. Tickell, which has been more than once reproduced, of a female captured on the coast of Tenasserim. "She was captured Feb. 1st, 1862, near the mouth of the Té River, on the sandy beach of which she had deposited about a hundred eggs, when she was surprised by a number of Burmese fishermen who had been lying in ambush near the spot (a favourite resort of the Common Turtle, Chelonia virgata), and, after a desperate struggle, was secured. Her entire length was six feet two and a half inches.

"The strength, aided of course by the enormous weight of the animal, was such that she dragged six men, endeavouring to stop her, down the slope of the beach, almost into the sea, when she was overpowered by increased numbers, lashed to some strong poles, and brought into the village by ten to twelve men at a time.

"The eggs were spherical, of 1⅝ in. diameter, and were as palatable as those of the River Tortoise are nauseous. Besides those the animal had laid in the sand, there must have been upwards of a thousand in her ovaria, in all stages of maturity. The flesh was dark and coarse, and very few of the crowds of Burmans assembled at Té to see the animal would eat any of it."[6]

According to the late Prof. Duncan, they make a roaring noise under certain circumstances, and hence have to be included in the genus Sphargis.[7] Aflalo, describing a pair of these Leathery Sea-Turtles from Thursday Island, states that "the shell was not harder than a new saddle."[8]

In compiling these few facts and opinions relating to this scarce and interesting animal, it is evident that much more is to be learned as to its habits; while the suggestion of Agassiz that there may be more than one species included under the same specific name is worthy of attention.

  1. 'Reptiles of Brit. India,' p. 55.
  2. 'Prodromus Zool. Victoria,' Dec. xi. p. 1, pl. 101.
  3. A specimen was recorded as found in Bridlington Bay, Yorkshire, on Oct. 25th, 1871 ('Zoologist,' 1872, p. 2907).
  4. 'Contr. Nat. Hist. U.S. Amer.' vol. i. p. 372.
  5. Ibid. p. 374.
  6. 'Journ. As. Soc. Beng.' 1862, p. 367.
  7. As the construction of this generic term implies, the species is now included in the genus Dermochelys.
  8. 'Sketch Nat. Hist. Australia,' p. 188.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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