What are the differences between turtles and tortoises?
Do turtles and tortoises share any similarities?
People often use the terms “turtle” and “tortoise” interchangeably because of their similar appearance.
However, if you want a turtle or tortoise for a pet, it is essential to know the difference between them.
Turtles and tortoises have different care requirements, especially when it comes to habitat and diet.
There are also many species of both turtles and tortoises, each with its own specialized needs.
This article will take a look at the key differences and similarities between turtles and tortoises, including their anatomy, habitat, diet, behavior, and lifespan.
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Similarities & Differences Between Turtles And Tortoises
Generally speaking, turtles tend to live in or near water, while tortoises live on land. Turtles and tortoises have similar shell structures, but their primary differences in appearance are their legs and feet.
All tortoises are turtles, as they belong to the order Testudines, which includes all reptiles having bodies encased in bony shells.
However, not all turtles are tortoises, mainly because turtles are adept at swimming while tortoises cannot swim.
This is due to the differences in their legs and feet, which we will discuss below.
What are the Anatomical Similarities and Differences?
Tortoise legs resemble tiny elephant feet, which are bent instead of being straight and directly below their body.
This helps the tortoise to walk on land, but it does not aid the tortoise in swimming.
Tortoises are generally larger and have heavier shells than turtles, so their elephant-like feet enable them to carry this extra weight on land more easily.
While tortoises may float for short distances until they reach land, they cannot swim and will sink if they do not find land to climb onto.
On the other hand, turtles have webbed feet and long claws, which aid them in swimming and climbing onto steep river banks or logs to bask in the sun.
Some turtles, such as the pig-nosed turtle, even have flippers, allowing them to glide through the water quite easily.
The structural anatomy of turtle and tortoise shells is very similar.
They both have a carapace, the top part of the shell, and a plastron, the bottom half of the shell.
The carapace of both turtles and tortoises is made of bony plates fused and attached to their ribcage and is connected to the plastron through bridges made of bone.
The shells of turtles and tortoises also have similar patterning on their scutes, which are the keratin plates forming the carapace’s outer part.
There are some differences in the shells of turtles in tortoises when it comes to their shape.
Tortoise shells are larger and more dome-shaped than turtle shells, and they also tend to be heavier.
This helps protect them from larger predators they may encounter on land, such as coyotes, foxes, and large birds of prey.
On the other hand, a turtle shell is more flat and streamlined to swim and dive more efficiently.
Some turtle species, such as the leatherback turtle, have only a plastron, with the carapace being a leathery or skin-like membrane not fused to the spine.
This type of shell acts as insulation, allowing the leatherback turtle to dive into deeper, colder waters than other sea turtles.
There are exceptions, such as the pancake tortoise, which has a flattened, flexible shell to hide in narrow cracks between rocks.
Sea turtles cannot tuck themselves into their shell for protection, so they swim sideways to appear larger as a defense.
Another anatomical similarity between turtles and tortoises is they are ectotherms or cold-blooded.
This means they both rely on their external environment to regulate their body temperature.
While they tolerate heat very well, colder temperatures will cause their heartbeat and metabolism to slow down to dangerous levels.
All turtles and tortoises, including sea turtles, are amniotes, which means they need to breathe air and lay their eggs on land.
Neither turtles nor tortoises have teeth, and instead, they use their hard, keratinous beaks for crushing and chewing their food.
They will also use these sharp beaks to bite perceived predators.
This is especially true of the alligator snapper turtle found in the southern United States, as they have been known to bite off human fingers.
What are the Similarities and Differences in Habitat?
Tortoises live on land, only needing water to drink and occasionally soak.
Turtles, however, may be aquatic, semi-aquatic, or land dwellers.
Some turtle species, such as box turtles and snapping turtles, are often confused with tortoises because they spend their lives on land.
If you are considering a turtle or tortoise for a pet, you should research the specific habitat requirements of the breed you choose.
Both turtles and tortoises need large enclosures to thrive.
Some tortoise species will do very well in an outdoor habitat as long as they are in a warm climate.
If you decide to keep your tortoise in an indoor enclosure, be sure you are able to provide it with adequate space.
Depending on the tortoise breed, you will also need to provide rocks for climbing and a deep substrate suitable for digging and burrowing.
Land-dwelling turtles have similar habitat requirements as tortoises, with some minor exceptions.
You will need to provide a body of water large enough for the turtle to swim in, and its enclosure will have higher humidity and lower temperature requirements than most tortoises.
Even though aquatic turtles thrive in water, you will still need to provide some dry land for basking and to get dry.
This allows the turtle to have a nice basking spot for warmth and aids in the shedding process.
What are the Similarities and Differences in Diet?
Turtles and tortoises have similar dietary requirements regarding the types of vegetables and supplements they need.
Suitable vegetables include leafy greens such as Romaine lettuce, mustard greens, dandelion greens, and collard greens.
They may also eat carrots, squash, broccoli, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes.
Turtles and tortoises also need dietary supplements such as calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D3 to promote bone health and prevent diseases such as respiratory infections and metabolic bone disease.
The main difference in diet is most tortoises are herbivores, except a few tropical species, and turtles are omnivores.
This means tortoises are vegetarians, while turtles eat both plants and meats, mainly live insects.
Be sure to gut load your turtle’s feeder insects with various vegetables and dust the insects with a calcium or multivitamin supplement powder before feeding them to your turtle.
This ensures the feeder insects will provide adequate nutrition to your turtle.
Examples of feeder insects for your turtle include live crickets, mealworms, beetles, and small locusts.
Commercial turtle foods are available but should not be solely relied upon to provide all their nutritional needs.
Aquatic turtles will also eat small feeder fish, although you should do this in moderation due to their high-fat content.
What are the Similarities and Differences in Behavior?
Both turtle and tortoise males will be aggressive towards other males if they are housed together.
Males may also be aggressive towards females during mating.
The exception to this is aquatic turtles, which do not have aggressive mating behaviors.
Turtles and tortoises may also be aggressive towards members of another species.
For these reasons, it is safer to house only one turtle or tortoise in an enclosure.
Another behavioral similarity between turtles and tortoises is their tendency to dislike being handled.
While many turtles and tortoises do form strong bonds with their owners, it is best to leave handling them at a minimum to avoid aggressive behaviors and stress.
One main difference in behavior between turtles and tortoises is how they go through the shedding process.
Turtles will shed their scutes to remove old ones and make room for new scutes to grow underneath.
They will bask in the sun to dry out their shells, which helps the scutes flake off.
Turtles may also rub their shells on rocks or trees to help scrape the old scutes away.
Aquatic turtles will also shed their scutes to remove any algae growth which has accumulated on their shells.
Tortoises, on the other hand, do not shed their scutes from their shell.
Instead, keratin is constantly growing, forming new scutes underneath the old ones, which gives their shell a layered appearance and allows the shell to expand as the tortoise grows larger.
While turtles and tortoises do not shed their scutes in the same way, they both will shed the skin on their head and feet.
You should never peel loose scutes or skin from a turtle or tortoise, as this will cause them irritation or skin injuries, which will turn into skin infections if not treated right away.
Are there Similarities or Differences in Longevity Between Turtles and Tortoises?
While both turtles and tortoises both have very long lifespans, tortoises generally live much longer.
The average lifespan is between 20-40 years, but certain breeds such as Wood turtles and Eastern box turtles may live more than 50 years in captivity.
Sea turtles have an average lifespan between 60-70 years and will take 40-50 years to reach maturity.
Tortoises, however, have an average lifespan ranging from 60-80 years but have been known to live for over 100 years.
The oldest tortoise on record was verified to have lived for 188 years, but it should be noted this is not common.
For a tortoise to live for over 100 years in captivity, it will require a lot of special care.
It is very important to keep these long lifespans in mind before choosing a turtle or tortoise as a pet, as they are a life-long commitment and require special care to keep them healthy and happy.
Some turtle and tortoise owners have even left special instructions in their will as to who will care for their pet if they should outlive their owner.
What Should You Know Before Purchasing a Turtle or Tortoise as a Pet?
Firstly, you should always purchase a pet turtle or tortoise from a reputable breeder, and you should always inspect the animal in person for any signs of illness.
Most breeders should be able to give you information on the care of your new pet turtle or tortoise as well.
Wild-caught turtles and tortoises may also be infested with parasites or have other diseases due to the stress of being removed from their natural environment.
You should also avoid purchasing a mail-order turtle or tortoise, as the mailing process is very stressful for them, and they will most likely arrive at their destination in poor health.
There are also import restrictions on some breeds of turtles and tortoises, which are completely illegal to import.
The sale of turtles and tortoises may require special permits, so be sure to check the laws in your area for these restrictions.
In addition to making sure you have adequate space in your home to accommodate a turtle or tortoise, you will also need to factor in the expense of owning one.
The average purchase price of turtles ranges from $20-$300, with some rare species selling for as much as $1,500.
The initial cost of tortoises will range from $50-$1000, but some rare tortoise breeds such as the Indian star tortoise sell for as much as $4000.
You will also need to budget for an enclosure and monthly expenses such as food bills, electric bills for heating and lighting, and veterinary visits.
If you want an indoor tortoise we a post on our recommended tortoises for indoor pets for you to read.
While turtles and tortoises share many similarities in anatomy, habitat, and diet, the main difference between them is the fact tortoises are strictly land-dwelling animals.
In contrast, turtles may be aquatic, semi-aquatic, or land animals.
You should thoroughly research the breed you choose to keep as a pet so you may provide them with a proper habitat and diet.
Remember: owning a turtle or tortoise as a pet is a lifelong commitment and will require specialized care to keep it happy and healthy.