What Is The Difference Between A Turtle And A Tortoise?

If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a slow-moving, shelled creature and wondering whether it’s a turtle or a tortoise, you’re not alone. These two reptiles can be confusing to tell apart, but there are some key differences that set them apart. From their habitat to their physical characteristics, understanding the distinctions between turtles and tortoises can help you appreciate and care for these fascinating creatures. 

what is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise
Difference between turtle and tortoise

Whether you’re a nature enthusiast or simply curious about the world around you, let’s explore the differences between turtles and tortoises in this article. We will also discover the unique qualities that make each one special. Let’s dive in!

Why it’s essential to understand the difference between a turtle and a tortoise

Turtles and tortoises may seem like similar creatures, but understanding the differences between them is crucial for several reasons. Firstly, the two species have different habitats, which means they require extra care and living conditions. For instance, turtles thrive in aquatic environments, while tortoises prefer dry land. If you don’t understand these differences while having them as pets, it can lead to mistreatment, malnourishment, and even death.

Additionally, turtles and tortoises have unique physical characteristics that serve distinct purposes. Tortoises have heavier, more domed shells, which help protect them from predators, while turtles have flatter, streamlined shells, which make them more agile swimmers. Knowing these differences can help you identify different species and understand their adaptations better.

Difference Between Turtle And Tortoise
difference between a turtle and a tortoise

Furthermore, turtles and tortoises play essential roles in their respective ecosystems. As herbivores, tortoises help maintain vegetation levels and control plant growth, while turtles serve as prey for larger predators. Understanding their ecological importance is crucial in conservation efforts and promoting a healthy ecosystem.

Can turtles and tortoises mate?

Turtles and tortoises are two distinct groups of reptiles that belong to the same order, but they cannot mate with each other. While both species have many similarities, such as their shelled bodies, there are also significant differences that prevent them from interbreeding. Tortoises and turtles have different methods of reproduction depending on their species and habitat. 

what is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise
Can turtles and tortoises mate

Furthermore, turtles and tortoises have different numbers of chromosomes, making it impossible for them to mate and produce viable offspring. Even if they were to mate, the fertilized eggs would not develop properly and would likely not hatch.

How Do Tortoises Mate?

Tortoises mate on land, and the mating process usually begins with the male pursuing the female, following her closely, and nipping at her legs or head. The male may also bob his head and make noises to get the female’s attention. If the female is receptive, she will allow the male to mount her from behind and mate.

The mating process can take several hours, and the male may continue to follow and court the female for several days. Female tortoises can store sperm for several years, which allows them to fertilize eggs and lay clutches of eggs without mating again.

How Do Turtles Mate?

Turtles mate in a variety of ways depending on the species. Aquatic turtles may breed in the water, with the male clasping onto the female’s shell and depositing sperm in her cloaca. Some species of turtles lay their eggs on land, while others lay them in shallow nests they dig in the sand or soil near the water. Some species, such as sea turtles, can lay hundreds of eggs at once, while others may lay only a few.

The male turtle has a long and thick penis, which he uses to transfer sperm to the female’s cloaca, the opening where the reproductive and digestive systems meet. Turtles, like most reptiles, have internal fertilization, which means that the female will store the sperm until she is ready to lay eggs.

Is a tortoise a type of turtle?

Yes, a tortoise is a type of turtle, but not all turtles are tortoises. Turtles and tortoises are both reptiles that belong to the order Testudines, which is also known as Chelonia. Tortoises are a type of land-dwelling turtle that have heavy, dome-shaped shells and elephant-like feet. Turtles, on the other hand, are a type of reptile that live in both water and on land, and they have more flat and streamlined shells.

Therefore, a tortoise is a type of turtle that is adapted for land-based habitats, while other types of turtles are adapted for aquatic environments. Different types of turtles, such as sea turtles and freshwater turtles, have flatter, streamlined shells and webbed feet or flippers for swimming.

Which lives longer, tortoise or turtle?

Tortoises typically live much longer than turtles. In the wild, tortoises can live up to 100 years or more, while the average lifespan of a turtle is around 25-35 years. Many species of tortoises have a long lifespan and can live well over 100 years, with some individuals living up to 150 years or more. In fact, a Seychelles giant tortoise named Jonathan, which turned 190 years old last year, is known as the oldest known living land animal.

Difference Between Turtle And Tortoise
Which lives longer

This is due to the fact that tortoises have a slower metabolism and are better adapted to living in a dry environment. In comparison, turtles are adapted to living in water and have a faster metabolism. Moreover, the lifespan of most species of turtles varies widely depending on their size, habitat, and other factors. Some smaller species of turtles may only live for a few years, while larger species, such as sea turtles, can live for several decades.

Here is tortoises’ and turtles’ life spans in captivity to give you a better understanding:

Typical Life Spans of Popular Pet Turtles in Captivity
Red-Eared Slider25 to 35 years
Map Turtle15 to 25 years
Wood Turtle40 to 55 years
Eastern Box Turtle50+ years
Painted Turtle25 to 30 years
Russian Tortoise40+ years
Greek Tortoise100 years or more
Leopard Tortoise100 years or more

Why is a turtle called a tortoise?

A turtle is not always called a tortoise, but in some regions, the terms turtle and tortoise are used interchangeably, leading to some confusion. However, in some areas, turtles that are adapted to aquatic environments are referred to as “turtles,” while land-dwelling turtles are referred to as “tortoises .”For example, in North America, the term “turtle” is often used to refer to all types of freshwater and sea turtles, while the word “tortoise” is used to refer to land-dwelling turtles, such as the desert tortoise.

what is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise
Why is a turtle called a tortoise

The word “tortoise” comes from the Latin word “tortus,” which means “twisted or bent,” referring to the shape of the animal’s shell. Tortoises have a unique shell structure that is adapted to their lifestyle on land. Their shells are typically higher and more domed than those of other turtles, with sturdy, elephant-like legs that are adapted for walking on the ground.

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The Differences between Turtles VS Tortoises

The Differences between Turtles VS Tortoises
Turtles VS Tortoises

Turtles and tortoises are both reptiles, but they have distinct physical characteristics and adaptations that reflect their lifestyle and habitat. Here are the critical differences between turtles and tortoises:


Turtles are generally semi-aquatic animals. So they spend much of their lives in water but also split their time on land. They have streamlined, flat shells that allow them to move quickly through water and webbed feet or flippers for swimming. Tortoises, on the other hand, are primarily terrestrial animals and adapted to dry environments. They have thicker, dome-shaped shells and sturdy, elephant-like legs that are adapted for walking on land.

Shell shape

The shells of turtles and tortoises have distinct shapes that reflect their habitat and lifestyle. Turtles have thinner and more water-dynamic shells. This type of shell allows them to move quickly through the water. Meanwhile, tortoises have thicker, dome-shaped shells that provide more protection from predators and the elements on land.

Shell shape
Shell shape

Legs and feet

Tortoises and turtles have different movements depending on their species and environment. Turtles have webbed feet or flippers that are adapted for swimming and moving through water. Meanwhile, tortoises have sturdy, elephant-like legs and feet that are adapted for walking on land and digging burrows.


Turtles are generally omnivores, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. Some species of turtles, such as sea turtles, are primarily herbivorous, while others, such as snapping turtles, are carnivorous. On the other hand, tortoises are herbivores and mainly eat vegetation such as grasses, leaves, and flowers.


Tortoises generally live longer than most species of turtles. Many species of tortoises have a long lifespan and can live well over 100 years, with some individuals living up to 150 years or more. The lifespan of most species of turtles varies widely depending on their size, habitat, and other factors. If given the proper care, most turtle and tortoise species can survive well into their 50s.

Difference Between Turtle And Tortoise

Water Interaction

Turtles are excellent swimmers and spend much of their time in or near water, coming onto land only to bask in the sun, lay eggs, or find food. Some turtle species, such as sea turtles, are completely aquatic and never come onto land except to lay eggs. In contrast, tortoises may occasionally come across water sources in the wild; they are not adapted for swimming. In fact, they can easily drown in deep water. 

Shell Shedding

Turtles shed their scutes, which are the individual bony plates that make up the outer layer of their shell, throughout their entire lives. Shedding is a natural process that allows turtles to replace damaged or worn-out scutes with new ones. However, tortoises have a different growth patterns for their shells. Instead of shedding bony shell surfaces, their shells grow continuously throughout their lives. The outermost layers of the shell become thicker and more textured with age, resulting in rings that can be used to estimate the age of a tortoise.


Turtles hibernate to survive the cold temperatures and lack food during the winter months. However, tortoises have adaptations to deal with temperature fluctuations in their natural habitats and do not typically hibernate. In fact, tortoises enter a state of dormancy called brumation or shutting down as much as possible of their bodily function.

Common Threats of Turtles and Tortoises

Tortoise Anatomy
Common Threats of Turtles and Tortoises

Turtles and tortoises face a variety of threats in the wild, many of which are caused by human activities. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified 187 of the 356 species of turtles and tortoises that are currently known to exist as threatened. Sadly, 127 of them are considered endangered or critically endangered species. This century may see the extinction of many. Here are some common threats that turtles and tortoises face:

Habitat loss and degradation

As human populations expand, natural habitats are destroyed or altered, reducing the available habitat for turtles and tortoises. This can lead to the loss of food sources, nesting sites, and places to bask in the sun.

Hunting and poaching

Turtles and tortoises are hunted for their meat, eggs, and shells, which are used for food, traditional medicine, and decoration. Many species are also captured for the pet trade, which can have a devastating impact on wild populations.

Climate change

Climate change is affecting the environment and habitat of turtles and tortoises, altering temperature and rainfall patterns. This can affect the timing of breeding and nesting and may also lead to changes in the distribution of food sources and the availability of suitable habitats.


Pollution, such as plastic debris and chemical runoff from agriculture and industry, can harm turtles and tortoises by ingestion or absorption through their skin. It can also contaminate their food sources and habitat.

Invasive species

Invasive species, such as rats and feral pigs, can prey on turtle and tortoise eggs and young, reducing their survival rates. When compared to their counterparts that live indoors, outdoor turtles and tortoises are also more susceptible to predators and the elements. Make sure your pond or habitat is protected from predators and the elements. Invasive plants can also outcompete native vegetation and reduce the availability of food and habitat.


Turtles and tortoises are susceptible to a range of diseases, some of which are caused by pathogens introduced by humans or other animals. Disease outbreaks can be devastating for populations, especially in areas where populations are already stressed due to other threats.


Turtles and tortoises are both reptiles that belong to the order of Testudines and also turtles are generally semi-aquatic, while tortoises are terrestrial animals. Turtles typically have thinner, more water-dynamic shells and webbed feet or flippers for swimming. Meanwhile, tortoises have thicker, dome-shaped shells and sturdy, elephant-like legs for walking on land. Understanding these differences is essential for adequately caring for these animals as pets or in their natural habitats, as well as appreciating the diversity of life on Earth.

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Frequently Asked Question (FAQ)

What is the difference between tortoise and turtle tortoise?

Turtles are generally found in the water, while tortoises are found on land and also turtles have streamlined, webbed feet adapted for swimming, while tortoises have elephantine feet and short, sturdy limbs for walking on the ground. Turtles are usually smaller than tortoises, and their shells are more rounded and smooth. Tortoises have larger, more dome-shaped shells with a hinged bottom.

Can a tortoise live in water?

No, a tortoise can’t live in water. This is because tortoises are unable to swim. They can, at most, float and drift; if they’re lucky, they might run aground. Some tortoise species can swim poorly, but the majority will just sink and drown.

Do turtles or tortoises have teeth?

No, turtles and tortoises do not have teeth. They have beaks that are made up of keratin, the same material that forms their hard shells. Turtles and tortoises use their beaks to tear, chew, and grind their food.

Can turtles live without a shell?

No, turtles cannot live without a shell. Turtles’ shells are an inseparable part of their anatomy and serve many vital functions. A turtle’s shell provides protection from predators, helps regulate body temperature, and gives the turtle support when they move. Without a shell, a turtle would be vulnerable to attack and unable to survive in its environment.

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