Turtles VS Tortoises – 5 Differences & Comparisions

Do you know the differences between turtles tortoises? You may think they’re the same but they’re not. Although they are both reptiles of the Chelonian family, on a basic level, tortoises live on land and turtles live in the water. Another defining difference is that tortoises eat almost exclusivity plants while turtles eat both plants and animals. Here we will dive even further to compare the turtle vs tortoise.

Turtles vs Tortoises


prickly pear cactus

There are differences in the diet of turtles and tortoises but one thing they have in common is their need for calcium. They need to keep their shells and bones nice and strong. In the wild, they both get their required calcium from their diet. The important calcium is found in the bones of the animals they consume and can also be found in the plants they eat, such as the prickly pear cactus.

1. Turtles

In the wild, most turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat a combination of plants and animals. Some turtles, like the leatherback sea turtle, have a diet that consists only of jellyfish making them carnivores. They can eat both poisonous and non-poisonous jellyfish without any ill effects.

Generally speaking, the turtles that are omnivores will eat water vegetation like algae and seagrass for the plant-based portion of their diet. They will eat small insects, fish, snails and worms to fulfill the animal-based portion of their diet.

Young turtles may feed almost exclusively on high-protein animals while they are growing and move towards a plant-filled diet as they age. They need this protein in order to grow while they’re youngsters but as they age, they need it less. It’s much easier to eat stationary seagrass than to hunt for animals. I would take the easy way out too if I didn’t need the extra protein.

2. Tortoises

Tortoises, as mentioned, eat almost exclusively vegetation. Most of their food will be plants but they do eat fruit sometimes too if it’s available. Tortoises that live in the dry, arid areas of the world will eat mostly leaves and stems because that’s what’s available to them. Tortoises that live in more temperate, forested areas eat plants too but they also eat fruit because it is more likely to be present naturally in their habitat.

Regardless of their specific diet, tortoises need harder plant-based foods to exercise their jaws. Failure to do so can result in jaw deformities. They are grazers. They roam around a large area eating small amounts of food as they travel.

As mentioned, tortoises need calcium, like we do, for their bones. This can be difficult since they don’t usually eat other animals whose bones contain calcium. Instead, the plants they eat are the main source of calcium for these creatures. The vitamin D the tortoises in warm climates get from the sun works with the plants they consume to create the much-needed calcium. We don’t want them to worry about osteoporosis.

Life Span

Life Span

The lifespan is another way to distinguish a turtle vs tortoise. The average lifespan of a turtle is between 20 and 40 years. An exception to this, because there’s always an exception, is the sea turtle. A sea turtle’s lifespan is longer and is usually between 60 to 70 years.

In contrast, the lifespan of a tortoise is much longer. On average, a tortoise’s lifespan will be between 60 to 80 years and even longer in captivity. They live as long as we do!

There are many claims around the world of turtles and especially tortoises that have lived a very long life. Many of these claims cannot be trusted or substantiated. In some cases claiming a very old tortoise, the sex of the turtle has changed in its lifetime and sometimes even its species. Let’s just say they live a long time and not worry about who has the oldest one.

For anyone thinking about getting a turtle or tortoise as a pet, make sure you remember their long lifespans. It is a big commitment – depending on your age they are likely to outlive you.

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Mating turtles and tortoises are aggressive. The tortoise males and females can be very violent whereas in turtles it’s the female that bears the brunt of the violence. If you happen to come across a pair of mating turtles or tortoises, it is best to stay away completely.

Both turtles and tortoises dig holes in which to lay their eggs after mating. Turtles usually dig their nesting sites on sandy beaches. The eggs are laid in the hole and the mother covers the hole with sand to protect it. After a period of 40-70 days, the eggs hatch. The hatchlings then make their way to the surface and must immediately make a run for the water to avoid predators. This terrifying ordeal is how their lives begin.

Tortoise hatchlings have it much easier when it comes to the first days of their lives. They also hatch and make their way to the surface. But, once at the surface, they go into the mother’s burrow where she protects them for another 2 months approximately. Much less harsh than the poor turtles.

Shape of the Shell


The shape of the shell is another easy way to differentiate between the turtle vs tortoise. For turtles, their shell is flatter and lighter than the tortoise. Turtles spend the majority of their time in water so their shell needs to be light and hydrodynamic. Otherwise, it would impact their swimming and cause them to sink in the water. This would greatly limit their ability to find sufficient food and therefore survive.

We all know the picture of the turtle getting scared and hiding its head inside its shell. Interestingly enough, while most turtles can do this, the sea turtle cannot.

Turtle shells are made up of about 50 different bones and have 2 parts: the upper section called the carapace and the lower section called the pastron. These 2 parts are joined by a bony bridge. Some turtles have a joint, usually in the lower part of their shell that is moveable. This means that when a turtle pulls all its limbs inside the shell, this joint allows them to pull the 2 sections of their shell together tightly. Good luck to any predator trying to get in.

Both the turtle and the tortoise only have one shell for their whole lives. Forget the image you’ve seen in cartoons of the turtle leaving its shell completely. Turtle shells are fused to the turtles’ spine so it would be impossible to leave it behind. Turtle and tortoise shells are made of bone which doesn’t shed but they can, however, shed small pieces of their shells called scutes. A turtle shell can be comprised of up to 60 different scutes on top of the bone. Scutes are made of keratin like our own fingernails and toenails. The main reason a turtle will shed its scutes is to grow – shedding smaller scutes to make way for larger ones. A turtle will also shed scutes to clean its shell and keep it free from infection.

The color of a turtle shell varies – most commonly, they are black, brown and olive green. Turtle shells can also have red, yellow, orange and gray in them, depending on the species.

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The tortoise’s shell is more round and much heavier than that of the turtle. Tortoises are notoriously slow movers so it’s hard for them to run away from predators. They need a strong, heavy shell to protect them while they go about their daily activities. Tortoises can’t swim so they don’t need to worry about the shape or weight of their shell as much as turtles.

Tortoises can also retract their head into their shell. In order to do this, they must exhale the air in their lungs. It’s a good thing they can hold their breath for a long time – they are very tolerant of carbon dioxide. This would be even more useful if they could swim but they can’t.

Both the turtle and the tortoise have nerve endings in their shells. This means they can feel it when you touch them. But, you should never touch a turtle or tortoise in the wild.

Differences in Habitat


As mentioned, one of the main ways to generally differentiate turtles and tortoises is in their habitat. Turtles live in water most of the time whereas tortoises live exclusively on land. The only time you’ll find a tortoise in the water is when they are either drinking or, in rare cases, bathing.

Turtles are mostly found in tropical and semi-tropical climates. As cold-blooded creatures, turtles need warm weather outside in order to regulate their temperatures inside. As a result, turtles are present in high numbers in Southeastern North America, Africa, and South Asia. Since most turtles are aquatic, their habitat is restricted to bodies of water. These bodies of water can be anything from small ponds and bogs, rivers, lakes to the ocean.

Turtles get their energy from external sources so at low temperatures they cannot move quickly. This is dangerous as it limits their ability to escape from predators. To keep themselves safe, turtles in colder climates will hibernate. This hibernation occurs in the warmest spot they can find where they hide while lowering their metabolic rate drastically. Once the weather gets warmer they emerge and resume their normal feeding patterns.

Tortoises also hibernate, especially the Mediterranean species. They will dig a hole in which to spend the cold period, like the turtles.

Tortoises are found mostly in Asia and Africa. They can also be found in Europe (the Mediterranean), North America and South America. The largest tortoises, and possibly the most famous, are the giant tortoises found in the Galapagos Islands.

Because tortoises are present in so many different areas, as a result, they must live in many different environments. They are found in and around deserts, semi-arid areas, tropical forests and even lagoons, lakes and swamps.

Differences in Physical Characteristics


In addition to the differences in the shells of the turtle vs tortoise, there are many other physical characteristics that can help you tell them apart. Tortoises are typically larger, bulkier and heavier than turtles. Turtles are more streamlined.

1. Limbs

The limbs of turtles and tortoises are different. Turtles have webbed feet for help with swimming speed and long claws. Tortoises have short and sturdy legs that can bend at the knee. Their feet look a lot like those of an elephant.

Compared to other vertebrates, tortoises have relatively small limbs in relation to the size of their bodies. This, along with the soft, pliable and loose skin on legs and necks allows them to pull all their limbs inside their shells.

Sea turtles have front and back flippers instead of what we would normally refer to as feet. This makes moving on land very difficult so you can see why they tend to stay in the water unless they are laying their eggs.

2. Tails

The tail is one of the main ways to determine the sex of a turtle. In general, males have a much longer and thicker tail than female turtles of the same species. Both turtles and tortoises use their cloaca at the base of their tails for waste elimination and reproduction.

3. Necks

Both turtles and tortoises can retract their necks into their shells. This is to avoid predators but can also be used for hunting. That shell without any limbs will look just like a rock for unassuming prey. And then boom! Dinner is served.

Turtles can pull their necks into their shell in 2 ways. They can either retract it by moving it sideways or they can retract it by just pulling it straight back. The way in which they retract their necks depends on their individual species.

4. Ears

Neither turtles nor tortoises have ears. But, this doesn’t mean that they can’t hear. While they can’t hear nearly as well as we do, scientists have found that they do have a thick eardrum-like membrane in their middle ears. This membrane allows them to hear only low pitched sounds. But, hey, it still counts!

Interesting Facts About Turtles and Tortoises


Now that we have learned about the turtle vs tortoise in depth, here are some fun and interesting facts about them:

– A group of tortoises is called a creep. It’s unlikely you will ever see a creep as tortoises are solitary creatures that roam and graze alone.

– All tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. Wrap your head around that one for a minute… The explanation for this is that a turtle is any shelled reptile belonging to the order Chelonii, whereas a tortoise is specifically land-dwelling as we learned earlier.

– A tortoise has been to space. There were tortoises on board the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 when it circled the moon. Those are some pretty well-traveled reptiles!

– The temperature of the sand where a mother lays her eggs will determine the sex of her hatchlings. If the sand temperature is high, all hatchlings will be hatched as female.

– This fact isn’t so fun but it is interesting: according to National Geographic, 129 of approximately 300 turtle species on Earth today are either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. And this is our fault. The main reasons for the decline in numbers are the loss of habitat, entanglement in things like fishing nets and slaughter for their eggs and meat.

– Even though they don’t have vocal chords, turtles and tortoises can make sounds by swallowing or forcing air out of their lungs. The worst offender is the female Leatherback sea turtle. When nesting she can make unpleasing noises similar to a human burping.

– Male turtles select their mates by sniffing their tails since that’s where their sexual organs are located.

– Sea turtles can cry. Don’t worry though, it’s not because they’re sad. They have glands that help them remove excess salt from their eyes which can give the appearance of crying. Think about how irritated your eyes get from salt water.

I hope you have enjoyed our in-depth exploration of the turtle vs tortoise. They are complex creatures that have adapted over millions of years and we are lucky to share our world with them. What’s your favorite kind?


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