To the average person, "turtle" and "tortoise" are just two names for the same creature. In fact, while there are obvious similarities in appearance, there are clear differences between turtles and tortoises, and each has their own specific needs as pets. If you're deciding between getting a turtle or tortoise as a pet, reviewing the characteristics of each can help in your decision-making.
Main Differences Between Turtle and Tortoises
Some key differences between turtles and tortoises are:
Primarily live in the water and go on land from time to time
Live on the land entirely
Flat, smooth, and lightweight
Domed, thick, and heavy
Thin with webbed feet or flippers
Thick, sturdy with "knees" and elephantine hind legs; flat or clawed feet
20 to 40 years
60 to 80 years
Which Makes the Better Pet?
Whether a tortoise or turtle is the best choice of pet for you is based on individual preference. However, there are a few key differences that make pet ownership more challenging and costly:
Tortoises live much longer and you will need to account for their care if they will outlive you. Depending on your age, this may be just as much of an issue with a turtle.
Tortoises can become much larger and require more room and specialized habitats, unlike turtles, which can live in an appropriately sized aquarium. Some tortoise species can weigh up to 200 pounds.
While both species do not love handling, turtles are less comfortable with humans and are generally not as social as some tortoises can be.
If the thought of feeding bugs to your pet is a real turnoff, you'll find it harder to provide a turtle with a proper diet compared to a vegetarian tortoise.
The most significant difference between turtles and tortoises is where they live. How they evolved to adapt to their habitats has led to the other differences between them. Unlike turtles, which lives most of their life in the water, the tortoises live their life on land. Depending on the species of turtle, some do spend more time on land. Many move to land to hibernate, bask in the sun, or only to lay eggs, such as the sea turtle.
Another difference between turtles and tortoises is where you can find their habitats geographically. Tortoises can be found in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Turtles are found in the Americas and Africa, while sea turtles are found primarily in warmer waters in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean.
Turtles and tortoises appear similar because they're both lizards that live inside a portable hard shell they can retreat into for safety. Upon closer inspection, one can see the differences in their physical structure.
Differences With the Shell
A tortoise and a turtle shell both have different shapes. A tortoise shell has a dome shape, and they tend to be heavier and thicker than a turtle's shell. A turtle's shell is flatter and lighter. This makes sense when you consider turtles tend to live more in the water and need to be able to move about easily in an aquatic environment. A tortoise, on the other hand, lives on land and needs a shell that provides more protection from the elements and other animals.
Differences With Their Legs
Again, due to the differences in habitat, a turtle's and tortoise's legs have adapted to suit where they live. A tortoise has thick, sturdy legs that help them move their heavy shell along terrain, with their hind legs appearing almost like that of an elephant. They have clubbed feet with flat bottoms, although some tortoises have claws.
A turtle's legs appear straight rather than bent and are thinner. They are designed for swimming and paddling the turtle through the water. Their feet are also webbed. The exception is sea turtles who have feet that look like the fins or flippers on a fish.
Tortoises are herbivores and subsist on a diet of plants like fresh vegetables, fruits, and hay. They can occasionally eat insects, but their primary diet is vegetarian. Turtles, on the other hand, are generally omnivores depending on the species. They eat a mix of insects, feeder fish, and vegetables.
Another significant point of difference between turtles and tortoises is lifespan. A tortoise can live up to 150 years, although the average is about 60 to 80 years. Turtles live as long as 20 to 40 years at the most, except for sea turtles that can live 60 to 70 years.
Both turtles and tortoises lay eggs and hatch live young. The difference is that a turtle will bury their eggs and leave them, whereas a tortoise will continue to protect her nest during incubation and for a few weeks after birth. Turtle and tortoise eggs also have different incubation periods, although this varies quite a bit between species. As an example, a box turtle's average incubation period is 60 to 90 days, and a sea turtle's is 60. Tortoise eggs can take eight to 11 weeks to incubate.
Another difference is in their scientific description and grouping. Turtles are known as the order Testudines, or Chelonia, which refers to reptiles with a hard shell. Tortoises are part of a suborder known as Testudinidae, which includes approximately 50 species of land tortoises. This means all tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises!
Turtles and Tortoises: Similar Yet Different
There are many similarities between turtles and tortoises, which, of course, makes sense since tortoises are part of the turtle family. They share many physical, behavioral, and other characteristics, but one can clearly see how their different habitats have shaped them over time to create reptiles with their own unique qualities and needs.