Box Turtle vs Tortoise. Similarities & Differences

Box turtles and tortoises look similar but they aren’t the same.

So, which is which?

You’ll get to know the differences between these reptiles coming up in this article.

Box turtle vs tortoise

CharacteristicsBox TurtlesTortoise
Feet Webbed feet long claws Stumpy elephantine feet
Shell shapeFlatter shellsDome shape shell
HabitatMoist environmentsDry environments
DietWet vegetation, insects Dry vegetation
Social Live in groupsLive alone

Do you want to adopt a pet turtle or tortoise but aren’t sure which to choose?

Will a box turtle or a tortoise be more up your street?

You’ll find out the difference between these two unique creatures and what makes them so special in this article. That will make it easier for you to choose the right pet animal for you.

Box Turtle vs Tortoise

Do you love shelled reptiles just as much as we do?

Then you’ll definitely enjoy finding out more about different species of tortoises and box turtles by means of this comparison. But before we jump into the details, let’s get to know today’s candidates.

The Box Turtle

Box turtles belong to the Emydidae scientific family. This sets them apart from tortoises.

Box turtles are terrestrial and semi-aquatic. They can draw their heads and limbs completely inside their shells to protect themselves from predators.

Not all turtles have the same characteristics so we’ll be discussing the aquatic and box turtle in this article.

eastern box turtle hiding

The Tortoise

Tortoises belong to the Testudinidae scientific family. This sets them apart from turtles.

Tortoises are exclusively terrestrial and live on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. They range in length from the small speckled cape tortoise species endemic to South Africa and Namibia to the giant species of tortoise on the Galapagos Islands.


The Box Turtle vs the Tortoise

The turtle is a reptile and so is the tortoise. They both have shells covering their bodies and live very long lives.

So, what is the difference between the two?

Coming up next, we’ll be comparing box turtles and tortoises in the following categories.

  • Feet and legs
  • Shell shape
  • Habitat
  • Diet
  • Social behavior

Feet and Legs

One of the main features that help you see the difference between a box turtle and a tortoise is its feet and leg shapes.

The box turtle’s feet are webbed with sizeable claws whereas the tortoise has stumpy elephant feet.

Why are these chunky feet necessary?

The elephant-like feet of the tortoise help him to carry his weight around on land. This is essential for the adult tortoise as they have a tough dome-shaped shell and heavy bodies.

The heaviest tortoise weighs over 670 pounds (340 kg)! Yup, you’ll certainly need sturdy legs to carry all of that weight around every day!

Aquatic turtles are different as they have flipper-like front feet and flipper-like hind legs which help them swim. Leatherback turtles are streamlined swimming pros as they can swim up to 35 kph (22 mph).

Key Takeaway:

Box turtles have stout limbs but they are generally thinner than those of a tortoise. Tortoises have thick claws which are perfect for digging on land.

Sea turtles have long and paddle-like forearms. They, unlike land turtles, cannot retract their limbs under their shell.

Shell Shape

Another one of the physical differences between a box turtle and a tortoise is their shell shapes.

The box turtle has a hard, flatter, and bony shell. Tortoises have rounded or domed shells.

Sea turtles have streamlined shells that help them glide through the water faster. Yes, each reptile has a shell that helps them to best adapt to its habitat.

But where is their habitat?

More about that next.


There are several differences between the habitats of box turtles and tortoises.

Box turtles live in moist environments. On the other hand, most tortoises spend their days living in dry environments where there is a lot of low-lying vegetation.

Asian box turtles like to live in wet tropical forests. Other box turtles spend their days living in marshlands and around swamps, and rivers.

Marine turtles literally can’t get enough of the water. And male marine turtles never leave the ocean and the females only leave briefly for egg-laying.

On the other hand, a tortoise will spend its whole life on dry land.


There are also some differences between the diet of a box turtle and a tortoise.

Both turtles and tortoises are opportunistic omnivores. But some box turtles also eat meat like small insects and are keen on wet vegetation and plants.

Tortoises, on the other hand, eat dry vegetation and plants. Some tortoises are strictly herbivores.

Social Behavior

Turtles and tortoises have different social behaviors.

Box turtles are social creatures and they live in groups of 3 or 4 members called a bale. Throughout their lifespan tortoises live alone.

Sea Turtles

We’ve had a good look at the differences between a box turtle vs tortoise. But a sea turtle is even more unique.

It has a streamlined shell and flippers which are ideal for swimming. They live in continental shelf waters and like semi-tropical climates.

Male turtles will never go onto land they only live in the sea. The females will come onto the beach when laying eggs.

Certain species of turtles are herbivores while other turtles are carnivores and omnivores. Loggerhead turtles eat both meat and plants.

Some species of marine turtles are social but most of them will spend their lives alone until they mate.

Here are some interesting facts about sea turtles.

  • There are 7 species of aquatic turtles. These include Flatback and Leatherback sea turtles.
  • These turtles have water-dynamic shells that help them swim faster. They have paddle-shaped flippers which also help them when swimming.
  • These animals live in almost every ocean basin in the world
  • Environmentalists are trying to raise awareness about the turtle crisis because all 7 aquatic species are currently endangered or threatened. They are trying to provide protection for the turtles by organizing coastal cleanups to reduce marine debris.
  • These aquatic animals lay eggs in a nest. They usually lay 110 eggs in a nest and average 2 to 8 nests in a season.
  • Like other reptiles, they are cold-blooded animals
  • The average length of the marine turtle is 3 to 4 feet
  • Mud turtles live in muddy wetlands
  • World turtle day is on May 23rd!

Are Box Turtles Considered Tortoises?

Box turtles and tortoises have a lot of similarities but they are not the same. Box turtles are not considered tortoises.

Here’s why.

Scientific Family

The box turtle belongs to the Emydidae scientific family. Tortoises belong to the Testudinidae scientific family.


Turtles spend much of their time in and around water whereas tortoises spend their lives on dry land.

Webbed Feet

The box turtle’s feet are webbed. Tortoises have stumpy elephantine feet.

Does a Turtle Like to Be Held?

A turtle is not a social animal. It does not welcome being picked up or held.

A turtle does not look for human attention like other pets. This is why many people get bored of a turtle as a pet and fail to look after it properly.

eastern box turtle on patio

The Ultimate Comparison of Box Turtles and Tortoises

There is often a lot of confusion between turtles and tortoises. They look similar, but they have many characteristics that make them unique.

Getting to know your pet turtle or tortoise is essential for you to give him the care he needs throughout his life.

So, what are the major differences between box turtles and tortoises?

This article has helped us learn that box turtles:

  • Have webbed feet and long claws
  • Box turtles have stout limbs
  • They have a hard and flat shell
  • They live in moist environments
  • They are omnivores
  • They live in groups of 3 or 4 members

It has also taught us that tortoises:

  • Have stumpy elephant-like feet and thick claws
  • Tortoises have a high-domed shell
  • They are land-dwelling creatures and live in dry environments
  • Some are omnivores while others are herbivores
  • They live alone

Did you find the information in this article interesting?

At Oddly Cute Pets, we are always striving to provide you with the most useful guides about turtles, tortoises, and other animals. For more tips about other unique creatures and how to look after them, check out our website.

Thanks for reading!

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