- Federal Status: Endangered
- FL Status: Federally-designated Endangered
- FNAI Ranks: G1/S1 (Critically Imperiled)
- IUCN Status: CR (Critically Endangered)
The Kemp's ridley is the smallest species of sea turtle, weighing only 85 to 100 pounds and measuring 2 to 2.5 feet in length of their shell. It has an olive-gray circular upper shell and a large beak-like head. The sea turtle was named for Richard M. Kemp, a fisherman interested in natural history who submitted the type specimen from Key West, Florida.
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is the smallest species of sea turtle and is the most endangered turtle in the world. This species reaches a length of 2-2.5 feet (70-76 centimeters) and a weight of 85-100 pounds (39-45 kilograms). It is recognized by its olive-gray circular shaped carapace (upper shell section) and large head with a beak similar to a parrot. Kemp’s ridley usually has 12 pairs of marginal scutes (scutes that surround the perimeter of the carapace), five coastal (lateral) scutes, five vertebral (center) scutes, and one nuchal (cervical) scute (Schmid and Barichivich 2006).
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles inhabit marine waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the western North Atlantic Ocean (Schmid and Barichivich 2006, Nesting Map Data: See map in NMFS et al. 2011).
The Kemp's ridley is the rarest sea turtle in the world. Its only major nesting beach is an area called Rancho Nuevo on Mexico’s Gulf coast. The location of this nesting beach was a mystery to scientists until the discovery of a film made in 1947 by a Mexican engineer showing thousands of Kemp's ridleys crawling ashore to lay eggs there. Today, nesting females are found mainly on the beaches of Rancho Nuevo, however, they can be found on Florida and south Texas beaches.
Kemp’s ridleys primarily eat crabs and other crustaceans. Females arrive to nest at the same time as a large group after first gathering offshore of Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. This process is known as an “arribada,” which means arrival in Spanish.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles develop nests in sand along beaches. The nesting season is between April and July. Female Kemp’s ridley sea turtles will arrive to nest at the same time as a large group after gathering offshore of Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. This process is known as “arribadas” or “arrival” in English. Nesting females are mainly found on the beaches of Rancho Nuevo, Mexico; however, they can be found on Texas and Florida beaches also. Females will lay two to three clutches each season with a 100 eggs per clutch. The incubation period for the eggs is 45-58 days (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration 2011, NMFS et al. 2011, Schmid and Barichivich 2006). Sexual maturity is reached at 7-15 years of age (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, n.d.).
The main threat to the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is accidental capture (bycatch) in shrimp and fishing nets such as longlines, finfish trawls, beach seines, drift and set gill nets (Schmid and Barichivich 2006). When captured in these nets, the sea turtle cannot escape and will usually drown. Increased development will bring an increase in lighting in the area, which is detrimental to sea turtles as hatchlings will migrate towards the light instead of the ocean. The potential for eggs and hatchlings being crushed or disturbed is increased with the increase of human presence along beaches. Beach sand renourishment can bury Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nests along beaches. Beach armoring (ex. seawalls) is a threat as the structures prevent the natural maintenance of beaches and sand dunes. Other threats include habitat degradation from contaminants and pollutants (ex. oil spills) (NMFS et al. 2011).
Conservation and Management
The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle is protected as an Endangered species by the Federal Endangered Species Act and as a Federally-designated Endangered species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule, and by Florida's Marine Turtle Protection Act (379.2431, Florida Statutes).
Florida Statutes (F.A.C. Rule 68E-1) restrict the take, possession, disturbance, mutilation, destruction, selling, transference, molestation, and harassment of marine turtles, nests or eggs. Protection is also afforded to marine turtle habitat. A specific authorization from Commission staff is required to conduct scientific, conservation, or educational activities that directly involve marine turtles in or collected from Florida, their nests, hatchlings or parts thereof, regardless of applicant's possession of any federal permit.
National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and SEMARNAT. 2011. Bi-National Recovery Plan for the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii), Second Revision. National Marine Fisheries Service. Silver Spring, Maryland 156 pp. + appendices.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. (22 September 2011). Retrieved June 14, 2012, from NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service:
Schmid,. J.R., W.J. Barichivich. 2006. Lepidochelys kempii – Kemp’s ridley. In Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles. Pages 128-141.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (2011). Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii).Retrieved May 19, 2011, from North Florida Ecological Services Office: