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Amazing Differences Between a Turtle and a Tortoise You Never Knew

Difference Between a Turtle and a Tortoise
Turtles and tortoises are a very old group of reptiles that date back to around 220 million years. They are similar in some aspects on account of being reptiles, but they differ in terms of their habitat and certain physical characteristics. AnimalSake lists out the differences between a turtle and a tortoise.
Smita Pandit
Last Updated: Jul 31, 2017
Did You Know?
Majority of the critically endangered turtles in the world are found in Madagascar and Southeast Asia.
Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are reptiles that belong to the order Testudines (also called Chelonii). While tortoises belong to the Testudinae family, turtles are chelonians that dwell in freshwater bodies or sea. Different types of turtles are classified under different families. Being reptiles, turtles and tortoises are ectothermic, which means that they don't have an internal mechanism to regulate their body temperature. They need external sources to stay warm. The characteristic feature of turtles, as well as tortoises is their shell. The shell is composed of 59 to 61 bones that are covered by scutes, which are plates made of keratin. It must be noted that the shell is permanently attached to the spine and the rib cage. The top and bottom of the shell is referred to as carapace and plastron, respectively. The reason why these reptiles have a long lifespan is often attributed to their slow metabolism, and the protection provided by the shell against predators. Some of the species can hide their legs and head within the shell, when threatened. Though the skin of turtles and tortoises might look tough, it is actually sensitive. Nerves that are present within the shell are responsible for their ability to sense pressure and pain.

Though turtles and tortoises have survived for millions of years, some of the species are now threatened with extinction due to habitat degradation or destruction. Consistent efforts are being made throughout the world to keep their numbers from declining. For instance, a global conservation program for freshwater turtles and tortoises has been launched by San Diego Zoo Global, the Turtle Survival Alliance, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Quick Facts
In North America, the term 'turtles' is used for referring to all chelonians, which also includes tortoises. The species Gopherus polyphemus, which is commonly referred to as gopher tortoise, is the only tortoise that is native to North America. This species has been designated as the state reptile of Georgia and the state tortoise of Florida.

✦ Kingdom: Animalia
✦ Phylum: Chordata
✦ Class: Reptilia
✦ Order: Testudines

Testudines order is composed of eleven families. These include:

✦ Chelydridae (snapping turtles, alligator snapping turtles) 3 spp
✦ Emydidae (pond turtles, box turtles, terrapins) 111 spp
✦ Testudinidae (tortoises) 48 spp
✦ Dermatemydidae (river turtles) 1 spp
✦ Kinosternidae (mud turtles, musk turtles) 27 spp
✦ Carettochelyidae (pignose turtles) 1 spp
✦ Trionychidae (softshell turtles) 25 spp
✦ Cheloniidae (sea turtles) 6 spp
✦ Dermochelyidae (leatherback turtles) 1 spp
✦ Pelomedusidae (Afro-American sidenecked turtles) 23 spp
✦ Chelidae (Austro-American sidenecked turtles) 48 spp
Tortoise Vs. Turtle
It is the habitat that mainly differentiates a tortoise from and a turtle. Tortoises can be found in deserts, grasslands, or forests. On the other hand, turtles live in an aquatic environment. They can be found in oceans, swamps, freshwater lakes, ponds, and streams. In the United States, the term 'turtles' is generally used for the freshwater, marine, and most land Testudines. The species that are completely terrestrial are referred to as tortoises.
Leopard tortoise
Leopard Tortoise
Hawksbill turtle
Hawksbill Turtle
Tortoises are not well-equipped to swim; they might enter a water body just to drink water or bathe. The species that are found only in the brackish waters of marshes and river inlets along the coast are referred to as terrapins. Like other reptiles, turtles and tortoises are classified as amniotes, as they lay eggs on land.
Tortoise eggs
Tortoise Eggs
Eggs of sea turtle
Eggs of Sea Turtle
Physical Characteristics
It must be noted that the size of both turtles and tortoises will vary, depending on the species. For instance, the Galapagos tortoise is around 6 feet in length and weighs up to 500 pounds, while the 10-cm long speckled cape tortoise could fit in your palm and might weigh around 6 ounces.
Baby tortoise
Baby Tortoise
Baby turtle
Baby Turtle
Even the turtles dwelling in freshwater bodies or seas come in varied sizes. There are certain physical characteristics that can help one make a distinction between turtles and tortoises. Physical adaptations of these reptiles include:
Indian star tortoise
Indian Star Tortoise
Green turtle
Green Turtle
Turtles have webbed feet that makes it easier for them to swim. The skin on their feet is quite soft, when compared to that of tortoises. Sea turtles, which belong to the Cheloniidae family have long feet that form flippers. These turtles don't leave the ocean, but the females come to the shore when they have to lay eggs. Due to their cold-blooded nature, some species might come out to bask. Even the turtles that live in freshwater bodies like ponds and lakes might climb out on to the rocks or banks for basking in the sun.
Turtles basking in the sun
Turtles Basking in the Sun
Freshwater turtles
Freshwater Turtles
On the other hand, tortoises have elephant-like feet. Their feet are round and stumpy. The skin on the legs of tortoises is scaly and hard. The scales are made of keratin. In some species, these scales are quite prominent. Tortoises that live in dry or arid regions make use of their strong forelimbs for digging burrows. When the temperature becomes too high, they usually slip underground to escape the scorching sun. Unlike turtles that can migrate from one region to another due to their ability to swim, tortoises don't migrate.
Dome tortoise
Dome shaped Shell of a Tortoise
Shell of a green turtle
Shell of a Green Turtle
One of the major differences in the physical characteristics of turtles and tortoises lies in the shape of their shell. Basically, the shell is a fused bone that comprises the spinal cord and the rib cage. Tortoises have big, hard shells that are shaped like domes. On the other hand, the shell is flatter and streamlined in case of turtles. Though the large-domed shaped tortoise shell appears to be quite heavy, the small air chambers within it make it lighter. In case of turtles, the flatter shell is an adaptation, as it creates less resistance to water when turtles swim.
Unlike turtles, tortoises are primarily herbivorous. They mostly consume leafy plants, grasses, flowers, and fruits. However, they have been known to occasionally eat insects or worms.
Most turtles are omnivores. They consume plants, as well as fish, snails, worms, and insects. Species such as the leather back turtle and the Hawksbill turtle feed on jellyfish. Though turtles and tortoises don't have teeth, they have a broad, expanded jaw that helps them crush hard stems or shells of mollusks. In case of the map turtles and the river terrapin, a secondary palate in the upper jaw helps them crush hard food items.
Tortoises are known to have a longer lifespan than turtles. Sea turtles have an average lifespan of 80 years, whereas the Galapagos giant tortoise have been known to live for more than 150 years. Certain small species of turtles that are kept as pets can live up to 40 years, if they receive proper care. It is believed that the long lifespans of these reptiles might be attributed to the protection provided by the shell to some extent. Moreover, these grow at a slow pace throughout their lives due to their slow metabolism.
The following tortoise vs. turtle comparison chart sums up the differences between a turtle and a tortoise.
Tortoise Vs. Turtle
● Tortoises are land-dwelling animals that are mostly found in Asia and Africa. A few species are also found in America.

● Turtles live in freshwater bodies or sea. They come out of water for laying eggs or sometimes to bask in the sun.
● Most of them are herbivores, with their diet comprising grasses, weeds, leaves, or fruits. However, they might sometimes feed on insects.

● Turtles are omnivores. Their diet includes aquatic plants, worms, insects, and soft-bodied marine animals.
● The shell is dome-shaped. It is heavier than that of turtles.

● The shell is flatter, which is suitable for the aquatic life.
● Tortoises have round, stumpy feet that allow them to move on land.

● Turtles have webbed feet or flippers that help them to swim.
● Some of the species have a lifespan ranging from 150-200 years.

● The lifespan of turtles ranges between 20-40 years. In case of pets, the lifespan might depend on the level of care provided by the owner.
It must be noted that some of the species of turtles and tortoises are endangered. In states such as Arizona, California, and Nevada, one can keep legally-obtained captive tortoises as pets. In case of California, the tortoise must be registered under the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Code. Thus, there are certain restrictions or regulations that one must be aware of. There are restrictions in case of turtles as well. Since 1975, it is illegal to sell turtles that are less than 4 inches in length. This is to reduce the risk of transmission of Salmonella bacterium. For the same reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that turtles must not be kept as pets if there are children below the age of 5 years, elderly, or immuno compromised individuals. If you have decided to keep a pet turtle or tortoise, you should remember that they require a lot of care.