Explained: Tortoise, turtle or terrapin? - TortoiseOwner.com

Turtle, Tortoise, Terrapin: What’s The Difference?

Have you found a creature that looks like a tortoise but you’re not sure whether it’s a tortoise, a turtle or a terrapin? Or are you curious as to what separates these 3 creatures? Read on because it’s a fascinating topic!

What is the difference between a turtle, a tortoise, and a terrapin? As members of the Chelonian reptile family, turtles, tortoises and terrapins are related. The difference between tortoises and turtles is that tortoises are herbivores that live on land while turtles are omnivores that live in the sea. Terrapins are one type of small turtle that lives in brackish water.

There are many ways of telling apart these fascinating creatures so let’s look at some details now.

What’s The Difference Between A Tortoise, A Turtle And A Terrapin?

Firstly, it’s important to note that tortoises, terrapins and turtles are related. There’s a good reason that they’re confusing to differentiate by just looking at them – they’re very similar and they’re all from the “Chelonian” family of reptiles.

That means they’re genetically related (though you cannot interbreed a tortoise with a turtle – they’re not close enough genetically to raise a family together) and much of their bodies work in similar manners.

Related article: Can tortoises and turtles mate?

They are all cold blooded and this is an important thing to know because it means that they can freeze to death. These wonderful animals can’t manufacture their own body heat so they need it from an external source.

Related article: Can tortoises freeze to death? How cold is too cold?

They all lay eggs and while you shouldn’t expect to get a lot of eggs from a turtle or a tortoise (some may only lay a single egg once or twice a year) those eggs are completely edible. However, we don’t recommend eating them as there are health risks associated with tortoise eggs (salmonella) and turtle eggs (heavy metal poisoning and salmonella).

Related article: Can tortoises and turtles lay eggs without mating?

They all have a shell, of some description, though there are tortoises with very basic shells which don’t appear to be fully formed. These have evolved to allow them to move faster on land, they still do have shells.

Related article: Tortoise anatomy: What tortoises are made of and why

However, despite these similarities there are some major differences between tortoises, turtles and terrapins too and that’s what we’re going to take a look at now, starting with why terrapins are different from tortoises but not so different from turtles.

Related article: So what makes tortoises reptiles?

About Terrapins: Different From Tortoises, Not Different From Turtles

The terrapin isn’t very different to a turtle. That’s because it is a turtle. You’ll find that terrapins are a group of freshwater turtles (that is they live in lakes and streams rather in the seas and oceans) but they can live in brackish (slightly salty) water if they need to.

You’ll find that terrapins are on the small side for turtles. There is no official definition of a “terrapin” and some species may not even be closely related to each other.

The term “terrapin” seems simply to come from a North American dialect during the colonial era in the United States and it was then transported back to the motherland, Great Britain. This ensured that it lived on in the English language.

Thus, for the purposes of discussing differences between terrapins, turtles and tortoises – when we make a distinction between turtles and tortoises – this difference is also the same as the difference between terrapins and tortoises.

Tortoises vs. Turtles: Understanding The Difference

Tortoises vs. Turtles: What is the difference? - TortoiseOwner.com
Tortoises vs. Turtles: What is the difference? – TortoiseOwner.com

Difference 1: Where They Live

If you didn’t already know, then one of the simplest ways to distinguish between a tortoise and a turtle is to observe it in the wild. It shouldn’t take very long at all to determine which is which simply by focusing on where they live.

Tortoises Live On Land

The tortoise is a descendant from a turtle – it’s essentially a turtle that decided it liked the land so much that it would live there permanently. Given that nature isn’t really into making things that don’t serve a purpose – tortoises lost the ability to swim and they don’t live in the water at all.

Related article: Turtles swim but tortoises don’t. Here’s why!

A tortoise will bathe in water (and, in fact, takes moisture into its body through a vent in the cloaca) and it may have a drink too but if you put a tortoise in deep water or if it stumbles into deep water, it’s going to drown.

Related article: Can tortoises drink milk?

You’ll find tortoise populations all over the world as they can live in deserts, forests, swamplands and in many other places. There are tortoises from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas – though none from Australia and none from Antarctica (which would be too cold to support reptilian life of any kind).

It is worth noting that the box turtle (which is from North America) can mislead people into thinking that it is a tortoise because it looks a lot like one but as with all turtles – it’s not a land creature, it lives in ponds because all turtles are either aquatic or semi-aquatic.

Turtles Are Aquatic Or Semi-Aquatic

Aquatic turtles live in the water nearly all of their lives, they may emerge to lay eggs but, otherwise, they’re swimming about and that makes it very easy to distinguish them from tortoises.

Semi-aquatic turtles, however, like the box turtle we just mentioned – spend some of their time on land and some of it in the water. This can make it easy to confuse them with tortoises at first glance but if you hang around for long enough, sooner or later, they’re going to retire to the water because they have to.

Interestingly, the box turtle is also considered to be a terrapin which may mean that it’s the most confusing member of the chelonian family.

This means you’re not going to find a turtle in a desert, well not unless it’s a dead turtle anyway, because without water they won’t survive.

Turtles are more common in North America than tortoises and they can also be from Africa, Asia and Europe.

It’s worth noting that, just like tortoises, turtles may be required to hibernate (the proper term for this with reptiles is “brumate” but it’s not really in common usage for most people). They do this in the same manner as tortoises, they dig a burrow and hide out there during the Winter months where they can stay warm.  It’s hard to tell a turtle from a tortoise when it’s brumating.

Waking up a wild chelonian when it’s brumating may result in its death – so, the best thing to do if you really want to know which it is, is to come back when it’s warmer. If it’s not swimming – it’s a tortoise, if it is, it’s a turtle.

Difference 2: What They Eat

If you can’t work out whether you have a tortoise or a turtle from the place that they live, you might be able to get a clue from the things that they eat. However, this isn’t completely cut and dried as we will see because some turtles can be confusing.

Tortoises Are Herbivores

Tortoises are plant eaters. In the wild, they eat the plants that surround them (carefully avoiding anything that is toxic) and this can be quite varied.

Related article: How to feed a tortoise: The tortoise diet guide

A desert tortoise might be found snacking on a lovely cactus whereas a forest tortoise might chow down on a banquet of berries.

It’s less likely to occur in the wild but pet tortoises that tend to be a little spoiled (we’re guilty too) might become fussy about what to eat and not to eat. This can lead to them eating rather less of the nutrients that they need, however, and you may find that you have to supplement a domestic tortoise’s diet with calcium and if they’re not getting enough UVB or sunlight – with vitamin D3 too.

Related article: Is your tortoise a picky eater? Here’s what to do

Turtles Are Omnivores

Well, it’s not quite as simple as saying “turtles are omnivores” because the truth is that most turtle species are omnivores. That is, they will eat both plants and meat. However, there are some turtles that buck this trend.

Softshell turtles are happy to be completely carnivorous and if you see them eating plants, something is very wrong, indeed. Annoying, there are also a small number of turtle breeds which are completely vegetarian.

If you see a wild chelonian chewing on insects, crabs, clams, snails or fish – you can be pretty certain that it’s a turtle. Tortoises don’t eat these things at all and, in fact, because their diets need to be low in protein, they’d become sick if they did eat them.

You may also find a turtle eating the same kinds of fruit and vegetables as any other tortoise though it’s unlikely you will find one snacking on cacti because they don’t tend to live in the desert.

So, diet is a good way to get an indication of whether you have a tortoise or a turtle on your hands but it’s not an infallible method because turtles can buck the trend and tortoises will eat meat if you offer it to them.

Difference 3: How Long They Live

Now, unfortunately, this is the kind of experiment that most of us won’t be able to run very often and that’s because chelonians are long-lived creatures. In the case of tortoises, in particular, they can be very long lived indeed.

That means most of us simply won’t live long enough to carry out this kind of experiment more than once:

  • The freshwater turtle has the lowest level of longevity and may “only” live 20-40 years!
  • The sea turtle has a longer life expectancy and assuming it doesn’t get eaten or fall sick it should clock in around 60-70 years
  • The tortoise will normally clock in at about 60-80 years and thus, a baby tortoise has a good chance of outliving its owner
  • Finally, the giant tortoise can live up to 150 years! Your grandchildren may find that they’re struggling to keep pace with one of these incredible creatures.

However, this is an important area to be aware of – if you’re going to take a chelonian on as a pet, you need to know that it’s a lifetime commitment. A tortoise will still be going strong long after a pet cat or dog would be expected to have passed on.

You might also want to think about what to do with your pet if you are no longer able to take care of it in your old age. It happens because your tortoise might keep going even after you pass on.

Related article: Can a pet tortoise survive in the wild?

Differences 4, 5, 6 & 7: The Physical Differences Between Tortoises And Turtles

As you might expect though, given that turtles and tortoises are, in fact, two completely different species as this stage in their evolution – there are marked differences between their bodies. They’ve begun to differentiate themselves based on the environments that they live in.

There are four different parts of the body which have changed to reflect this that can be easily identified with the naked eye: the shells, the feet, the tails and the necks. Let’s take a look at each of those and why the differences exist.

The Shells

The most distinctive feature of Chelonians is the shell and there are distinct differences between turtles and tortoises.

Tortoise Shells Are For Defence

Tortoises, as we’ve already seen are terrestrial creatures, if they’re attacked, they can’t swim away in defense. So, their shells have evolved to become a superb way to fend off attackers and predators instead.

Related article: How far can a tortoise travel in one day?

The shell has grown to be high, round and it’s much heavier than the average turtle shell. This additional weight leads to the tortoise being slower than most turtles but that doesn’t really matter, the tortoise won’t be swimming anywhere and if it’s attacked it’s going to withdraw as much as possible into that shell.

Related article: Can tortoises carry weight?

The shell is split into two parts – the carapace (that’s the bit of the shell at the top of the tortoise) and the plastron (the bit at the bottom). They are joined but they both evolved separately. In total a tortoise has around 50 bones in the shell.

The outer layer of the shell consists of scutes which are plates made out of keratin (that’s the same substance as your teeth and hair is made out of).

Tortoises don’t shed their scutes and that means they need to be protected from damage wherever possible.

Turtle Shells Need To Allow Them To Swim

Tortoise shells may be highly practical for hiding out on land but under the water, they’d be a disaster. A big domed shell would act as a huge drag factor and the turtle would be barely able to swim at all – certainly, they’d find it difficult to swim away from any predators looking to snack on them.

So, a turtle’s shell will usually be lower in profile, flatter overall and much lighter – this allows them to swim much faster. The shell cuts through the water and aids the overall mobility of the turtle.

However, this mobility comes at a price. A sea turtle is not able to retract or withdraw into its shell in the same way as a tortoise can.

Freshwater turtles aren’t under the same pressure to find high swimming speeds and their shells are a sort of halfway house between tortoise shells and sea turtle shells. Some freshwater turtles have very similar shells to tortoises – if you remember the box turtle (terrapin) from earlier on in this article, this is why it’s easy to confuse it with a tortoise.

Oddly, some turtles have scutes but not all turtles have them. A “softshell” turtle has a layer of skin where the scutes, should be – if you pick up one of these turtles it feels like the leather on the outside of a football. This allows the turtle to swim even faster than it’s hard-shelled relatives but it comes at the price of the lack of any real defense from the shell, itself.

If a turtle has scutes, it will shed them on a regular basis. This allows the turtle to grow and also, and as importantly, it allows for their replacement – living in the water means that the scutes are much more prone to infestation and infection than they are on land.

The Feet

If you’re looking for the easiest way to spot the difference between a tortoise and a turtle, then that’s probably going to involve inspecting their feet.

As we’ve noted several times – tortoises live on land and turtles live (at least part of the time) in the water and that means their feet and legs have had to adapt to very different uses. These adaptations are highly visible and even someone who is brand new to Chelonians is going to find it simple to tell them apart.

Tortoises: They’re Designed For Walking

Tortoise’s feet and legs are recognizably designed for land animals. They have knees in the legs which allow them to bend the leg to walk. Their feet touch the ground on their toes (oddly, if you take a look at the back of the foot, it never touches the ground).

A tortoise’s legs are fairly short when compared to the overall length of their body. The legs are capable of retracting inside the tortoise’s shell when it’s in danger.

Turtles: Webbing Or Flippers?

Once again, there is a singular exception to the rule on turtle’s feet, yup, it’s that pesky box turtle again – that has the same kind of feet and legs as a tortoise and it’s the only time when you’re likely to get confused between the two.

Otherwise, freshwater turtles will have webbed feet rather like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. That’s a fairly distinct feature. Interestingly, when they’re on land their whole foot (including the back) touches the ground and this is also true for box turtles! So, you can tell that a box turtle is a turtle by its feet, you just have to watch it walk around for a bit.

Sea turtles don’t have feet. They have flippers. In the same way that dolphins have flippers. You can’t fail to miss these and it’s such a clear distinction that sea turtles are very easy to recognize through this feature.

As you might expect, this makes sea turtles pretty bad at walking on the land, which is why they only tend to come ashore to lay eggs – otherwise, they spend their time in the water. Its safer for them and they’re capable of swimming at incredible rates through the water thanks to this adaption – a sea turtle is so much faster than a tortoise that it’s hard to believe without seeing them in action.

The Necks

The necks don’t offer a great way to differentiate between tortoises and turtles. Assuming that the neck can be retracted into the shell (and on some breeds of turtles it cannot) then you’re going to find that both tortoises and turtles can do this.

However, there is a group of turtles known as “sideneck turtles” which move their necks into the shell in a sideways fashion – tortoises don’t do this. All tortoises and most turtles just retract their neck into the shell in a straight reverse motion.

That means you can categorically identify a sideneck turtle as a turtle via the motion of the neck, but you can’t use the neck as anything other than an indicator of species in other instances.

The Tails

You’ll find that tortoises and turtles both have tails and that there is absolutely no way of telling the difference between the two using the tail.

However, you can normally tell the difference between the sexes of either tortoises or turtles through the length and width of the tail.

Lady Chelonians will have shorter, thinner tails than male Chelonians. This is a fairly consistent difference too across as Chelonian species.


I hope that this fun guide has helped you appreciate the differences between tortoises, turtles, and terrapins. You should also be able to tell them apart, most notably from the feet and the shape of their shell!

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