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California's newest state animal could be the 2,000-pound sea turtle

February 22, 2012 |  4:18 pm

Leatherback sea turtle
The world’s largest sea turtle could earn a new distinction from the California Legislature: the title of official state marine reptile.

A bill introduced Friday by Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) would add the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle to a growing list of official state animals and plants such as the California quail (the state bird) the gray whale (state marine mammal), plants like the California poppy (state flower) and even extinct megafauna like the saber-toothed cat (the state fossil).

The leatherback turtle would claim an entry in the law books right below--and not to be confused with --its relative the desert tortoise, a landlubber that has held the title of state reptile since 1972.

The symbolic measure, intended to raise awareness about the endangered species, comes as the federal government is setting aside 41,000 square miles of the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington as critical habitat for the sea turtles.

Their numbers have dropped more than 95 % since the 1980s because of disease, the harvest of their eggs and entanglement in fishing gear.

“Leatherback sea turtles are in danger of becoming extinct and we need stronger conservation efforts in order to protect these remarkable creatures,” Fong said last month in a news release announcing the legislation.

The 2,000-pound, 8-foot-long sea turtles have been around for 100 million years and are known for swimming thousands miles across the Pacific each year from nesting beaches in Indonesia, Mexico and Costa Rica to the U.S. West Coast, where they feed on jellyfish.

Leatherback turtles have been on the endangered species list since 1970.

The bill would also declare Oct. 15 Western Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle Conservation Day and encourage the state’s public schools to teach about the turtles.

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--Tony Barboza

Photo: A leatherback sea turtle hatchling at Playa Grande, Costa Rica. Ken Weiss/Los Angeles Times.