Tortoise vs Turtles

by Sandra Krug

What is a tortoise anyway? Is it just a fancy way to say “turtle”? Well, there is a difference. “Turtle” is the umbrella term for all 200 species of the Testudines group, which includes turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

All tortoises are turtles—that is, they belong to the order Chelonia, reptiles having bodies encased in a bony shell from which their head and limbs protrude—but not all turtles are tortoises. Reptiles are cold-blooded, have scales, breathe air, and lay eggs on land.

The most critical point to remember about tortoises is that they are solely creatures of the land. They live in an assortment of habitats, from deserts to wet tropical forests. Unlike most sea turtles, which take to land only when they are laying eggs, tortoises don’t have much to do with water other than drinking it and occasionally bathing in it and can even drown if they wander into deep water. However, not all land turtles are tortoises, such as box turtles and wood turtles.

One way to further differentiate tortoises from other turtles is to look for certain anatomical features. They are easily recognized because all share unique hind-limb anatomy made up of elephantine hind limbs and hind feet. They have tough feet that are great for walking, and some use them to dig out burrows in the dirt where they can rest. Their forelimbs are not flipper-like, and their hind feet are not webbed. Only sea turtles have true flippers. Tortoises are mostly vegetarians, while other turtles are omnivorous (eat vegetation and meat).

Turtles live in Africa and North and South America. A turtle’s shell is lighter and more streamlined than that of a tortoise, but there are some exceptions. Box turtles, for example, have a domed shell, as do Sonoran mud turtles. Turtles can be aquatic, semi-aquatic, or mostly terrestrial. Semi-aquatic and live by freshwater ponds or lakes. They have a tendency toward swimming. But, they also spend a lot of their time on land, basking in the sun and occasionally burrowing in the mud. To enable swimming, turtles have webbed feet and extended claws. Turtles are omnivores, which means they eat both vegetation and meat. Sea turtles eat jellyfish, small invertebrates, sea sponges, or sea-vegetation. Freshwater turtles like to chow down on things like leafy plants, fish, and insects. Turtle moms, however, come out of the water to lay their eggs but don’t stick around to take care of them. Baby turtles must survive on their own from the beginning. Their life span is shorter than tortoises, with an average of 20-40 years and a maximum of 86 years.

For some extra complication, there are two suborders of turtle whose classifications are based entirely on how they move their necks. Cryptodira, which includes the desert mud turtle, can pull their heads straight back inside their shells, but Pleurodira, or side-necked turtles, like South America’s Mata Mata, cannot. They turn their heads to the side and hide them under the rim of their shells for protection.

Tortoises are found primarily in Asia and Africa, but also in North and South America. A tortoise has a rounder, bumpier, heavier shell than a turtle. Its bent legs are short and sturdy. Tortoises are usually herbivores. They like to munch on things like shrubbery, grasses, fruit, and other plants, like cactus. Mother tortoises lay their eggs, wait for them to hatch, and take care of their babies for a little while before they go out on their own. Their life span is longer than the turtle, with an average of 80-150 years and a maximum of 188 years.

And finally, there’s the terrapin, which is a turtle but not a tortoise. Terrapin prefer to make their homes in brackish water or swampy regions. They are sort of like a mix between a turtle and tortoise. They spend much of their time split between the water and the land. They are usually small and have a hard-shell that is shaped somewhere between a turtle’s streamlined one and a tortoise’s rounded dome-shaped one.

Fun Turtle/Tortoise Facts:

  • The Soviet space program sent tortoises to orbit the moon in their 1968 launch of the Zond-5 space probe. Tortoises orbited the moon about three months before human astronauts. This was a test flight for a conceivable human-crewed moon mission. The Soviets sent a cargo of an assortment of living things like wine flies, mealworms, bacteria, seeds, plants, and two Russian tortoises. The spacecraft launched on September 14th, 1968. On September 18th, it became the first successful circumlunar flight. It splashed down in the Indian Ocean 3 days later on the 21st. The Russian tortoises endured their lunar mission. The only adverse side effect was about a 10% loss in body weight.
  • A turtle’s shell is about 50-60 bones covered in interlocking plates called “scutes” that form its exoskeleton. The top part of the shell is the “carapace,” while the bottom half of the shell is called the “plastron.” A boney bridge connects the two parts.
  • Unlike the way cartoons sometimes portray turtles, they cannot separate from their shell or crawl out of them.
  • It might seem like their hard shells are the ultimate protective shield, a turtle’s shell has nerves embedded in it. They are receptive to feeling through their shells. For example, they feel the pressure of weight on their shells, and if they injure their shell, they will feel the pain.
  • The official collective term for a group of turtles is known as “bale” as in “a bale of turtles.” But, it’s not uncommon to hear pet owners refer to turtles in a group as a “herd.”
  • The largest of all turtle/tortoises is the Leatherback Sea Turtle. It’s easily distinguished by the lack of a bony shell, which is replaced by a leathery carapace.  It also has a teardrop-shaped body. Adult leatherbacks have an average length of 3.3–5.74 ft and can weigh anywhere between 550 – 1,500 lbs.
  • The biggest tortoises are the Giant Tortoises of Galapagos and the Indian Ocean, along with the Aldabra tortoise from Seychelles. One time there was a Galapagos giant turtle that weighed 882 pounds.
  • It is a fairytale that you can know a turtle’s age from the rings on the scutes of its shell. Turtles do accumulate growth rings, but they’re not necessarily indicative of their age. They don’t accumulate the rings every year. It is thought that the scute rings show growth spurts relative to the abundance or scarcity of food that was available to the turtle at the time.
  • One of the oldest tortoises on record was said to have been gifted to the royal family of Tonga by the British pioneer Captain Cook in 1777. The tortoise grew up in captivity with the royal family for 188 years. In1965 he died of natural causes. Another famous tortoise that went by the name Harriet was a resident of the Australian Zoo. She was said to have been a pet of Charles Darwin before ending up in the land down under. She died in 2006, just before her 176th birthday. At This Time, there’s a Seychelles giant tortoise called Jonathan living on the island of St. Helena, estimated to be around 176-178 years old.
  • One of the fiercest species of turtles is found in the fresh waters of North America and is called the Alligator Snapping Turtle. It’s one of the largest freshwater species, growing up to 2.5 feet long and weighing as much as 200 lbs. The alligator snapping turtle is somewhat notorious looking with a spiky shell, razor-sharp bent beak, bear-like claws, and scaly muscular tail. This turtle species has a unique way of luring in its targets, including small fish, frogs, and crayfish. It has a long tongue that features a bright-red, worm-looking patch of flesh that it wiggles to make it appear to be a worm. This attracts prey up close and sometimes right into its mouth, after which it snaps its strong jaws shut and devours it.
  • While most land turtles retract into their shells for protection, sea turtles aren’t able to do so. Their heads are exposed at all times.
  • Sometimes it may appear like a turtle is crying. This is simply the way a turtle expels excess salt from its body via tear ducts.


What’s the Difference Between a Turtle and a Tortoise …. Everything You Need To Know About Raising Pet Turtles. The Difference Between Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins …. Animal – Everyday awesome facts.