Turtles & Tortoises must have been the source of the “Find the difference” game, because they are two animals that most people can’t distinguish between.
Turtles & tortoises are both reptiles which belong to the Testudines family of animals – animals which developed a bony/cartilaginous layer on their backs, which cover their bodies as a shield. They belong to the same group as crocodiles and snakes.
A lot of times, many aspiring pet owners don’t know how to differentiate between a turtle and a tortoise and end up caring for them the wrong way. They give them the wrong food and expose them to the wrong living conditions. This results in many animal deaths. Those owners who try to do right by their pets by releasing them back into the wild, release turtles & tortoises in environments they actually aren’t supposed to, leading to more deaths.
So, how can we stop this vicious cycle? By learning more about them of course. Here are the top 5 differences between turtles & tortoises:
- Turtles can swim, tortoises can’t. That’s why turtles have webbed feet (sea turtles have full-fledged flippers) and tortoises have feet that have toes (like that of an elephant) which they use to walk & climb.
- With the exception of the Sonoran mud turtles and Box turtles, all other turtle species have a streamlined and flat shell. All tortoises have deep, domed shells. The streamlined shells of turtles are highly-aerodynamic and reduce drag in the water. Tortoises never needed to evolve a flat shell because they never needed to swim.
- Turtles live on an average for 80 years. Tortoises for 150 years. There have been instances where turtles and tortoises in healthy captive conditions lived well beyond their natural lifespans, some reaching an estimated 250 years of age.
- Turtles are omnivores and like to eat a mix of plants and meat like larvae, insects, small fish and jellyfish. Tortoises are mostly herbivores and love their green leaves, with only a handful of species choosing to eat meat.
- Female turtles come on shore only to lay eggs and will return to the water immediately after. Female tortoises on the other hand, often stay a few days protecting the nest and will return to their territories much later. If you’ve seen a turtle/tortoise lay her eggs near your property and you want to do your bit to give these eggs a chance to hatch (and not get eaten by predators), read this really-informative article by the Tortoise Protection Group here.
Okay, here’s a fun fact that can turn everything you’ve just learnt on its head.
Scientifically speaking, there’s no distinct species called “tortoise”!
Okay, before you drop your device in shock, let me just clarify that there’s more to it.
So, according to taxonomy (the science of classification), all animals that have shells which cover their body completely are called “turtles”. What this means is that all tortoises are in reality a type of turtle.
Let’s break it down further. The species called “turtles” includes – tortoises, terrapins (yep, that’s a new one) and turtles.
- Tortoises are turtles which live exclusively on land.
- Terrapins are turtles whose shells resemble those of sea turtles (only smaller), but whose legs look like those on tortoises and they swim in freshwater.
- Turtles are actually sea-turtles which live in the ocean and do not remain long on land.
Basically, all tortoises and terrapins are turtles, but all turtles are not tortoises and terrapins.