Domenico Agostino Vandelli named the species first in 1761 as Testudo coriacea after an animal captured at Ostia and donated to the University of Padua by Pope Clement XIII. In 1816, French zoologist Henri Blainville coined the term Dermochelys. The leatherback was then reclassified as Dermochelys coriacea. In 1843, the zoologist Leopold Fitzinger put the genus in its own family, Dermochelyidae. In 1884, the American naturalist Samuel Garman described the species as Sphargis coriacea schlegelii. The two were then united in D. coriacea, with each given subspecies status as D. c. coriacea and D. c. schlegelii. The subspecies were later labeled invalid synonyms of D. coriacea.

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