Kemp’s Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys kempii) are the rarest sea turtles in the world. They live primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, traveling to New England in the summer to feed on crabs, their favorite food. They are usually only seen in the Keys during their annual migration through our waters. They also have a unique Keys connection, having been named for a Key West fisherman.
Common name: Kemp’s Ridley (named for Key West fisherman Richard Kemp)
Scientific name: Lepidochelys kempii Family: Cheloniidae Group: reptiles
Status: Is listed as an Endangered species in the U.S. under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Is considered the most endangered of all the world’s sea turtles.
Range: adults limited to the Gulf of Mexico. Juveniles range from the Gulf up and down the east coast of the United States.
Size: adults are about 2 feet in carapace length
Weight: adults are 77-100 pounds
Characteristics: Both dorsal skin and carapace are a dark green to grey color. Ventral surfaces are white to yellowish. Bony carapace with non-overlapping scutes (5 lateral scutes). One claw on each front flipper, one to two on the rear. Two pair of pre-frontal scutes between the eyes. A key characteristic for this species are 4 inframarginal pores found on the plastron. These pores can be clearly seen in the photo to the right and appear as small dark spots. As adults they have a rounded shape and their carapace may actually be wider than it is long.
Habitat: shallow areas with sandy or muddy bottom
Diet: crab, shrimp, mussels, clams. Will also eat sea urchins, fish, squid, and jellyfish.
Nesting: unlike other sea turtles, the Kemp’s Ridley usually nests every year. Females usually nest twice per year in large groups or arribadas (Spanish for “arrival”). An average of 110 eggs are laid. No one (in the U.S.) knew where they nested until it was discovered by Archie Carr that all Kemp’s nested on a single beach in Mexico. 50 years ago as many as 40,000 females at a time would come ashore in the arribada. Today, sadly the nesting population is estimated at somewhere around 2,000 females. The Kemp’s Ridley is also unusual in that it reliably nests in broad daylight.
Interesting facts: the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle has a unique Key West connection. During the years when turtle harvest was a profitable profession, the most common turtles found were loggerhead and green turtles. But every now and then, an unusual looking small turtle would be harvested. They were thought by most to be hybrids of the loggerhead and green turtles, but a Key West fisherman by the name of Richard Kemp thought otherwise. He was convinced they were a separate species and finally sent a specimen off to New York for classification. In honor of his contribution, the species now bears his name.
To aid them in their search for bottom-dwelling prey, the eyes of the Kemp’s Ridley are angled downward, giving them a bug-eyed appearance.