Although closely related and with plenty of similarities, turtles, tortoises and terrapins are very different creatures that need to be respected as such. Once you know what sets them apart from each other, the differences will be obvious: so you can provide each with the correct care. From webbed feet to shell shapes, here’s everything you need to know about the differences between turtle and tortoise.
All About Turtles and Tortoises
The name “turtle” is actually an umbrella term which can refer to everything in the order Testudines, from sea turtles, to terrapins, to hard-shelled tortoises. Basically, all tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises!
There are thought to be 356 species of turtles in the world, found on every continent, except for Antarctica; they are very adaptable!
Tortoises can live up to 100 years, with some giant species living even longer! Due to their migratory nature, sea turtles are harder to track and observe therefore there could be some individuals that survive beyond 100 years of age but it is thought they live to around 60-70 years old.
Terrapins do not live as long and are estimated to live 20-30 years in captivity.
However, many hatchlings die before they reach adulthood with only 1 in 1,000 baby sea turtles surviving. When they are so small, they have lots of predators including crabs and larger fish, as well as raccoons, birds, and even dogs when they leave their nests to make their way to the ocean.
Both turtles and tortoises suffer from various threats when it comes to their survival. While you cannot tell them apart by the threats they face, we think it is still important to understand their conservation status and how it affects the species.
Six out of seven sea turtle species are considered endangered, with the last species being data deficient, which means there is not enough data available to be able to make an accurate assessment of their conservation status.
Some of the threats that these marine turtles face include
- Entanglement in fishing lines,
- Habitat destruction which leads to reduced availability of food and fewer suitable nesting sites,
- Poaching for their meat and eggs (in many cultures, turtle eggs are thought to be an aphrodisiac and are poached for local cuisine),
- Oil spills,
- Marine pollution,
- Ingestion of litter
- Climate change and higher nest temperatures
Due to their low survival rate as hatchlings, some of the main conservation efforts involve relocating eggs, protecting nests, and shielding hatchlings as they make their way to the ocean across exposed beaches. To protect the adults, it is illegal to trade any of the parts of a sea turtle thus discouraging poaching and the sale of their shells and meat. The global efforts to reduce plastic consumption is benefitting the sea turtle populations, and there are now protected beaches all around the world to encourage successful nesting and prevent poaching.
Tortoises and Terrapins
Over half of all tortoise and freshwater turtle species are considered to be threatened with their main threats including exploitation for the pet trade, habitat destruction, and poaching for their meat.
Nowadays, the trade of tortoises and turtle species is illegal but the illegal pet trade still sees thousands of animals seized every year.
Telling these shelled reptiles apart can first be done by just looking at them. Although it can be easy enough to know the differences when they are next to each other, the real professionals will be able to know a turtle from a tortoise no matter where they are.
Terrestrial tortoises range in size from the smallest speckled tortoise (Chersobius signatus) that grows to an average 8cm and around 150g, to the Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra) that can weigh over 300kg and grows to around 6 feet in length.
Sea turtles, however, are all on the larger side with the smallest aquatic turtle growing up to 70cm and the largest growing being the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) that can grow up to 7 feet in size!
Terrapins all stay relatively small and don’t often grow more than 30cm in length.
When you think of turtles and tortoises, the first thing you probably think of is the shell; it is one of the most noticeable parts of their anatomy and is different in each species.
Turtles have got a streamlined shell that is thicker near the head and tapers down towards the base. With this design, they can swim through the water with ease, which is vital for them to fulfil all of their needs.
The shells of land dwelling tortoises are taller, heavier, and more domed in shape; when they grow, the individual scutes grow on top of each other, therefore creating the domed shape that is so recognisable. The main function of a tortoise’s shell is protection as they cannot easily swim away like a turtle or terrapin could when in danger. Now, while the shell is noticeably different when looking at tortoises and turtles, if you look at the different species of tortoises, it can be more difficult to tell them apart just on their shape. Tortoise shells vary quite drastically in colour, markings, and the shaping of individual scutes.
Terrapin shells are somewhere in the middle of both tortoise and turtle shells; they are streamlined to aid their swimming through the water, but have got more of domed shaped like tortoises, just not as big and heavy!
Scutes are the individual sections you see on a turtle or tortoise’s carapace, the top part of the shell. As the reptile grows, their shells have to grow too. This happens by a larger scute growing underneath the current ones and pushing the rest upwards.
As we mentioned earlier, tortoises do not shed their scutes, but instead they grow upwards, creating the domed shape that is so recognizable. Aquatic and freshwater turtles, on the other hand, do shed their scutes so that their shells stay streamlined and smooth. Terrapins will dry off in the sun and can be seen rubbing their carapace against rocks and branches which encourages the scutes to flake off.
Some older, giant terrestrial tortoises may have smooth shells but this is from gradual wear over many many years, and it is much more common for them to be uneven.
Feet and Flippers
Another obvious difference between turtles, tortoises and terrapins are their legs. We are sure once we have explained it will seem pretty obvious!
Tortoise legs are designed to carry them across land; they are sturdy, thick, and not unlike elephant legs. They have a solid base and claws at the end of their feet. Although they cannot move very fast, they can climb up steep hills, move over obstacles, and can dig holes quite easily. Their thick legs and heavy shell are two of the main reasons why tortoises cannot swim and it is rare for them to spend time in the water, other than to drink.
Sea turtle flippers, on the other hand, are designed in a way that helps them move through the water with ease. Rarely coming onto land, the turtle flippers are strong to help propel them through the oceans and dive deep to find food and evade predators. They also have claws which help pull them over the sand when they come onto the beach to lay their eggs. Surprisingly, their flippers are quite dextrous and can dig their nests quickly so they can get back to the water as soon as possible.
Terrapins have webbed feet that allow them to be great swimmers when in the water but also allow them to move quickly on land, if they need to. As freshwater turtles spend their time on land as well as in water, their feet have to enable them to do both.
As you may have already guessed through their anatomical adaptations, terrapins, turtles and tortoises can all be found in different environments. You will never see a land dwelling tortoise swimming in the ocean, just as you wouldn’t see any sea turtles trekking through the jungle. They have all adapted to be able survive in very specific habitats which results in the key differences we have just outlined.
Turtles can be found in waters all around the world. Although it is thought that they favour shallow coastal waters, they frequently migrate between where they will forage for food and where they will nest. This migration can take them across entire oceans which means travelling through incredibly deep waters where they have to dive for hundreds of metres for food.
Sea turtles spend their entire lives in the ocean, with only females coming onto the beach to build a nest and lay eggs. They are not well adapted to move efficiently on land, and will quickly return to the water if they are disturbed, feel threatened, or if they cannot quickly find a suitable nesting spot.
Unlike tortoises and terrapins, some species of sea turtle can tolerate much colder temperatures.
Tortoises can be found exclusively on land and only venture into shallow bodies of water to bathe and hydrate. Land-dwelling tortoises cannot swim therefore will never go into water so deep that they can’t stand.
They are quite adventurous little reptiles and can be found in various habitats around the world from dense jungle and mountain sides to arid deserts and sand dunes. Each species of tortoise have their own adaptations that allow them to survive in such varying climates. For example, the Egyptian tortoise is much lighter in colour to be able to tolerate the heat of the sun without overheating, whereas on the other hand, tropical species will be much darker in colour to enable them to blend in with the dense vegetation on the forest floor. Some also have longer necks than other species due to their food being further from the ground; these adaptations are a direct result of their environment and are what allow them to survive in such contrasting habitats.
Also known as terrapins or freshwater turtles, these species can be found in swamps, lagoons, mangroves and various other freshwater habitats where they have access to both land and water. They favour warmer climates and will spend time on land, such as rocks and river banks, to bask in the sun, and then will move to the water to forage for food and to mate.
Their webbed feet allow these creatures to move efficiently both on land and in the water. As with their land and sea-dwelling cousins, terrapins also lay eggs at suitable nesting sites on land.
One of the main differences between turtles and tortoises, as you have probably already guessed, is their ability to swim. In the order Testudines, swimming is something exclusively done by turtles, and something you will never see tortoises do. A turtle can hold their breath for several hours, depending on their activity level, however it is much more common for them to dive for a few minutes at a time and then return to the surface for a breath before diving again. Tortoises, on the other hand, cannot hold their breath for more than a few minutes and will drown if found in water deeper than they can stand up in; their heavy shells and thick legs make them terrible swimmers.
Due to a stark difference in habitat, it is only natural that their diet varies greatly, too. Sea turtles are considered omnivores as they will eat a variety of fish, jellyfish, algae, seaweed, and other marine plants.
Most species of tortoise are strictly herbivores and will only eat weeds, grasses and flowers however some species have been known to also eat insects, slugs, and other small invertebrates.
Terrapins are also omnivores and will eat fish and insects as well as grass, weeds, and any other foliage they have access to on land.
Keeping Them as Pets
Due to their large size and migratory behaviours, sea turtles are not kept as pets but you may sometimes see them in zoos and aquariums in expansive enclosures.
Semi-aquatic turtles and tortoises, however, are common pets and can be found in hundreds of thousands of households across the world.
As with other reptiles, these shelled creatures have very specific needs to be able to live happy and healthy lives in captivity. Whether you have a turtle or tortoise, you should know about their biological requirements so that they remain healthy and live to a ripe old age.
The perfect terrapin enclosure consists of ample dry space for basking under a heat lamp as well as water for swimming and exploring. Semi-aquatic turtles can often be kept in a large fish tank with logs and large rocks for them to dry out on, but with enough water that they can comfortably dive.
Differently, a tortoise enclosure needs to have a specific level of humidity but substrate that remains relatively dry. You can buy specially made tortoise tables that are a perfect size for small-medium species and baby tortoises. Some tortoises can even be housed outdoors, providing the climate is warm enough and it doesn’t get too cold at night.
Substrate is a very important consideration when constructing your tortoise enclosure and there are different recommendations based on the species you have.
Temperature, Humidity, and Light
They both need specific temperature and humidity levels, and a source of UVB light to be ankle to survive. If they get too cold they will not be able to digest their food or even perform normal locomotory behaviours, whereas if they do not get enough UVB radiation, they can suffer from long-term developmental issues such as metabolic bone disease.
Whether you are housing a turtle or tortoise, enclosure furnishings are vital to encourage exploratory behaviours and reduce boredom. A bored turtle can lead to several health issues therefore you should include tortoise-safe plants, logs, rocks, and shelters to break up their environment, reduce pacing and get them exploring! Always make sure that any plants you include are not toxic to your reptilian pet
Knowing the Difference
Knowing the difference between a turtle, tortoise, and terrapin is very important when coming across them in the wild. There have been reports of people placing tortoises into large bodies of water thinking that they can swim away, so being able to identify them could save their life!
Those in the order Testudines do have quite marked differences which should mean you can successfully tell the different species apart just by looking at the structure of their feet and legs or the shape of their shell.
What To Do If You Find One
If you do ever come across one of these shelled reptiles in the wild and you’re unable to confidently identify it, the best thing to do is to leave it alone and it will find its way to where it needs to be. You wouldn’t want to relocate it to a place that leaves it in danger or far away from its natural environment.
As with most wild animals, it’s much better to leave them to do their own thing as they surely know what they’re doing!
Although they are all closely related, turtles and tortoises have many differences that allow them to be easily identifiable if you know what to look for. These differences are also what allows them to live in such diverse habitats and to live such long lives.
Take a look at their shell, feet, and the environment you find them in and hopefully, you will be able to tell the difference, but if not then the best thing to do is admire their beauty and let them be.