Difference Between Turtle and Tortoise

turtle vs tortoise

Turtles and tortoises are both considered a part of the chelonian family of reptiles. It’s not uncommon for the everyday person to confuse the two. After all, they are similar in appearance and behavior. Although most people – and even some scientists – refer to both as “turtles,” there are some distinct differences between the two.

Turtles vs Tortoise

It can be difficult to spot the difference between turtle and tortoise at first, but the two share different natural habitats and also have differing physical features.

A turtle lives in or near water. They can hold their breath underwater and swim with ease. They are primarily found in Africa and America. Tortoises, on the other hand, tend to live in arid regions. They prefer sandy areas and are capable of storing their own water supply. For this reason, they are typically found in Asia and Africa. There are also a few species that are found in the Americas too.

As far as diet is concerned, turtles are omnivorous, while tortoises are mostly herbivorous. Turtles will eat plants as well as fish and insects. Tortoises only eat insects and carrion on occasion and typically rely on leafy greens for nourishment.

Differences in Habitat

Because turtles enjoy living in water, they are often found in marshy areas and ponds. Many turtles have finned front feet, while others have webbed toes. This allows them to easily glide through the water while swimming.

Tortoises live above ground. Water is strictly used to clean themselves and for drinking purposes. Believe it or not, tortoises are unable to swim and can drown if they are placed in deep water. Tortoises typically don’t migrate either.

Both turtles and tortoises lay their eggs on the ground. Mothers will burrow a hole and lay up to 12 eggs inside. Turtle hatchlings will stay inside of their eggs for up to 4 months before venturing out. They incubate themselves and then dig their way to the surface. Tortoise hatchlings will actually follow their mother to her burrow where she will protect them for approximately 3 months.

Total internal reflection of Chelonia mydas




Physical Difference Between a Turtle and a Tortoise

Turtles have a flatter, streamlined shell that is designed to aid them in swimming. Tortoises have a rounder and denser shell that is much heavier than a turtle’s shell.

Tortoises have scaly, hard feet, which helps them navigate their way through sand and over rocks. They typically have claws to help them dig burrows to escape from sweltering summer temperatures. Turtles have webbed toes or fins designed for swimming.

Another major difference between turtle and tortoise is their life expectancy. A tortoise can live more than 100 years, but the average turtle lives no more than 50 years. In fact, the oldest turtle lived to be 86 years old, whereas the oldest tortoise lived to be 326.

By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Testudo hermanni boettgeri.jpg” by Richard Mayer is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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