Turtle vs. Tortoise

Turtle and tortoise both are reptiles and belong to the same family called Testudeines but the main difference between them is where they live. Depending upon the environmental conditions, turtles can be aquatic, semi-aquatic, or terrestrial which means turtles can dwell on land as well as in the water whereas tortoise live on land and are not able to dwell in the water.

A word turtle is often used as an umbrella term for all 200 species of the Testudines group which includes turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. All the species belonging to this family have two distinct features,

  • The bodies of both turtle and tortoise are covered with a shell known as a carapace to which their ribs and vertebrae are fused.
  • Presence of pelvic girdle inside the rib cage that allows the movement of head and limbs from the shell without detaching the whole body from it.

Comparison Chart

 Basis Turtle Tortoise
Definition A turtle is a reptile that can live in both water or land, with some species being solely aquatic while others are semi-aquatic Tortoises are exclusively land creatures
Shape of the Shells Turtles generally have a flat and streamlined shells It has a rounder, bumpier, and heavier shell than a turtle
Limbs Turtles have webbed feet with long claws which makes them able to swim Tortoises have short and sturdy feet with bent legs to easily traverse the landscape
Diet Turtles are omnivorous and can eat both vegetables and flesh Tortoises are mainly herbivorous but some species can eat meat
Life span Turtles have a shorter life span than that of the tortoise with an average of 20-40 years and a maximum of 86 years Their life span is longer with an average of 80-150 years with a maximum of 188 years
Habitat Turtles are commonly found in America and Africa The tortoise is mainly found in Asia and Africa but some species are found in the America
Reproduction Turtles usually come to land to only lay eggs and the mother will leave to the sea immediately and the hatch-lings will stay in their nest for 90-120 days all on their own Unlike turtles, the mother tortoise will stay with their young ones for almost 80 days after hatching
Pet Usually people prefer turtles to keep as pets but it is difficult to take care of them because of their long life span Tortoise are usually not kept as pets

What Is Turtle?

Turtles are reptiles with a body enclosed in bony shells that protect them from predators. They are among the oldest and most primitive groups of reptiles having evolved millions of years ago making them older than snakes, lizards, and alligators.

According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (IT IS), turtle belongs the order Testudines or Chelonia, and the order splits into two suborders known as Cryptodira and Pleurodira, and then finally splits into 13 families, 75 genera, and more than 300 species.

According to the San Diego Zoo, following are some facts of turtles:

  • There are approximately 365 species of turtles in danger of extinction living on land and in both fresh and salty water and can be found in all continents except Antarctica.
  • Sea turtles spend most of their lives in water and rarely leave the ocean, except when a time comes to lay eggs on land.
  • Freshwater turtles live in ponds and lakes and they only climb out of the water and crawl to logs and rocks to bask in the warm sun.
  • Turtles are easily recognized by their bony and cartilaginous shell made up of about 60 bones that are covered by plates called as scutes and acts like a shield and protect them from predators.
  • The top part of the shell is called the carapace while the bottom part is called plastron.
  • Turtles have beaks like birds and are completely teeth less. The beaks of omnivorous turtles are too sharp and ridged that it can do serious damage to the hand of an unwary human while the beaks of herbivorous turtles have serrated edges and are relatively weak.
  • Turtles are cold-blooded and have an incredibly long life –span. It is believed that the DNA of these reptiles undergoes more frequent repair and their stem cells are more easily regenerated.
  • Due to the thickness of shell, turtles do not have a good hearing capability.
  • The largest turtle that have been seen yet is the “leatherback sea turtle” which weigh over 900 kg (2000 lb).
  • All turtle lay eggs but on land. They dig a nest into the sand, lay eggs, and then leave them to hatch on their own.
  • In some species of turtle the temperature determines whether the egg will be the male or female, lower temperature leads to a male while higher temperature gives birth to a female.


What is Tortoise?

Like turtle, tortoise also belongs to the same family Testudinidae. The tortoise is an exclusively land-dwelling reptile that can be found in every continent except Antarctica.

Following are some facts of the tortoise:

  • All tortoises are turtles but not all turtles are tortoises.
  • A tortoise can run as fast as 1.6 km/h.
  • Tortoises can be kept as a pet as they like to be touched and can feel touch in their shells but the biggest drawback to a pet tortoise is their long lifespan.
  • Many tortoises are too big to handle and it’s advisable to not handle them for a long period of time as it can lead to stress or injury to the tortoise.
  • If you cut out the brain of tortoise it still can survive up to 6 months.
  • In China, you can buy live tortoises encased in a key chain inside a herbal solution and can live for 1-3 months.
  • Female tortoise lay about a dozen eggs in burrows or holes they dig.
  • Many tortoises can retract their head, their four limbs, and their tail into the shell to save themselves from predators.
  • Tortoises have a beak but no teeth and no external ears just two small holes on the side of the head.
  • Tortoises tend to be diurnal (active during the day) depending on the ambient temperatures.
  • Tortoises are generally reclusive and shy creatures.


Key Differences between Turtle and Tortoise

  1. A tortoise is a turtle but a turtle is not always necessarily a tortoise.
  2. The most obvious distinction between the turtle and tortoise is where they live. Turtles live in water for the most part of their lives while tortoises are exclusively land-dwelling reptiles.
  3. A turtle mostly lives in water so their shell is flatter for streamlined swimming while a tortoise has more rounded and domed shape shell.
  4. Turtles have more flippers like legs or webbed feet to make them easier to swim through water while tortoises have club-like forelegs and heavier and larger “elephantine” hind legs to help them move around the land.

Comparison Video


Though both the turtles and tortoise are cold-blooded reptiles, have scales, breath air, and lay eggs on land but there are several differences between these two unique creatures such as the size and shape of shell and feet and their habitat.

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