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What Is The Difference Between A Turtle And A Tortoise?

Tortoises are a subgroup of turtles, though both carry a shell on the back. Yet, turtles are smaller and more attractive than tortoises. Tortoises have stocky feet while turtles have webbed feet and flippers.  

The word turtle is a general term for all reptiles that carry a shell on their back. It includes tortoises, turtles, and terrapins. Most people use the two words interchangeably when referring to the graceful reptiles. Yet, these two animals have several physical and biological differences. 

Summary of the differences

 • The shells of tortoises are round and dome-shaped while those of turtles are thin and streamlined to ease swimming. 

 • Tortoises are land animals that spend most of the time foraging in the wild and only seek water to cool down. 

 • In contrast, turtles are sea animals and spend most of the time in the water hunting for seafood. 

 • Tortoises have large elephantine hind legs and short, stout forelegs. This adaptation enables them to move on land while carrying their heavy bodies. 

 • The feet of turtles resemble flippers with a webbed structure. This adaptation helps them stalk their prey while hunting. 

• Tortoises are much larger than turtles.



Turtles belong to a class of reptiles called Chelonia or Testudines. Animals in this order have their bodies encased in a shell. This means that tortoises are just a subgroup of turtles. The testudine group includes over 200 species of turtles and tortoises. The shell is connected to the ribs and backbone. They also have a pelvic girdle inside the rib cage. The compressed body structure is the reason for their characteristic lumbering gait. 


Turtles are spread around the world and can be found in all continents apart from Antarctica. However, there are no native species of tortoises in Australia. The highest diversity of turtles in the world is in Southeast Asia and the southern parts of the US. In contrast, South Africa is the country with the most species of tortoises in the world. Giant tortoises once roamed the world, but most remnants are found in remote islands such as the Aldabra in Seychelles.


 Turtles prefer moderate climates because most of them are adapted to the relatively cold seawater. However, some species hibernate along river banks during the cold months. Meanwhile, tortoises prefer warm climates in the tropics. Nevertheless, they are capable of lowering their metabolism in extreme conditions. 

 Box turtles are semi-aquatic species that spend plenty of time on land but have webbed feet. Some people mistake them for tortoises, but their small shell and webbed feet confirm that they are turtles. The most common terrapin in the US is the Diamondback, which lives in the marshes and has webbed feet. It is an aquatic animal and a strong swimmer.

Tortoises are land animals


 Tortoises spend all their life on land. They are well adapted to different climates and will thrive in tropical forests as well as savannas. They only seek water when in need of a drink or when they need to cool down. Tortoises have distinctive anatomy with columnar hind legs and short, stout forelimbs. Their feet have separate digits while each digit has one or two phalanges. Tortoises can grow very large and even become heavier than humans. For instance, Galapagos tortoises can weigh over 400 kilograms.

Turtles are aquatic animals

 Most turtles live in the sea and only come to land to lay eggs. But, there is a group of turtles that live a semi-aquatic life, and includes wood and box turtles. Turtles have webbed feet for swimming. While most people associate turtles with flippers, it is only sea turtles that have flippers. Most species have contoured shells to facilitate swimming. Some semi-aquatic and terrestrial species, such as box and Sonoran mud turtles have domed shells. Most adult turtles weigh 3-5 kilograms.


 Tortoises are strict vegetarians that do not catch prey or scavenge on dead animals. In contrast, turtles are omnivorous and feed on seaweed as well as small fish and other sea creatures. However, most pets eat processed supplements and hay.

Incubation period

 All turtles, including tortoises, lay their eggs on dry land by burying them in the ground. Turtles lay about 2-12 eggs while tortoises lay 10-30 eggs. The turtle’s hatchlings are independent from birth and stay in the nest for 3-4 months. The tortoise’s hatchlings live with their mothers for 80 days after hatching. 


 The colors of turtles range from mixed patterns of greenish-brown and gold to a mix of olive, black, and gold. Most turtles have bright, attractive colors while tortoises tend to have dull and subdued colors. The color difference is partly because turtles spend most of their time in water, where their shells remain clean while tortoises are in constant contact with the elements. The daily exposure to dirt and the sun makes tortoise skin dull.

Life span

Galápagos tortoise
Galápagos tortoise

 Turtles live for an average of 20 to 40 years. Sea turtles live longer, with most averaging 60 to 70 years. It takes sea turtles around 40 to 50 years to mature depending on the species. The oldest turtle in the records was 86 years old. Tortoises live for 80 to 150 years. The oldest tortoise in the records lived for 326 years. Most of the long-lived tortoises live under the controlled conditions of zoos, conservancies, and private properties.

Keeping a Cold blooded pet

  Both tortoises and turtles make for an adorable cold blooded pet. Tortoises are easy to manage because of their largely vegetative diet and terrestrial lifestyle. Some people love turtles because of their exotic appearance.

Caring for tortoises

 Tortoises are docile reptiles that love to spend plenty of time in the sun. They like to get plenty of free space where they can walk and forage. Some are reclusive while others are curious and charismatic. You can differentiate male tortoises from females by looking at their physical characteristics. The lower part of the male shell is concave and has a longer tail than the female. 

 While tortoises are competent foragers, you can complement their diet with fruits, vegetables, and chow. Some species such as Leopard tortoises eat hay and high-fiber grass. Most of them enjoy leafy green vegetables such as kale and collards. Always provide it with fresh vegetables and clean water every day. Some vets advise pet owners to add calcium to their diet. Take care when introducing a new one because some are territorial. 

 The shelter should resemble the natural environment of the animal. Ensure that it is free from dampness. Further, create a pool of shallow water where it can rest in the hot midday sun. The shelter should have shade and an open area so that it can choose where to rest, depending on the weather conditions. Most tortoises do not have health problems unless the living conditions are squalid.

Caring for turtles

Turtles are cute, gentle, and clean pets that people love to have at home. Adult females are often bigger than males while adult males have longer toenails than females. They love to bask in the sun during the day to warm themselves and aid digestion. 

Young turtles mostly feed on small sea animals such as worms and crayfish. You can supplement their diet with whole fish, insects, and dried krill. Give adult turtles leafy greens such as broccoli and collards. The shelter should be a pond that is large enough to allow movement and deep enough for diving. You should also construct a shade where it can hide from the midday sun. Turtles need occasional vet visits to check their health.

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