Bruce Explains Box Turtles: Turtle Versus Tortoise Versus Terrapin

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Malti, on the left, is a South American red footed tortoise. Bruce, of course, is a 3 toed box turtle.

If there is anything more confusing than box turtle taxonomy (that is, classification)….well, let’s just say that here at Casa Feathers n Beak n Shells, we are pretty sure there isn’t.

For example, why are some turtles called “turtles,” while other turtles are called “tortoises” or “terrapins?”

The simplest explanation would be that “turtles” live in water and “tortoises” live on land. But not only does this leave out “terrapins” entirely, but it doesn’t explain the many land-dwelling turtles and tortoises that like water.

And it doesn’t even touch on how, in different places around the world, different types of beings with a head, tail, legs and a shell are called by different taxonomic names than what they are classified as here.


For the very most general of purposes, a “turtle” can be considered to be an aquatic (water habitat) shelled being.

So can a “terrapin,” for that matter, although where a turtle likes fresh (non-salty) water, a terrapin tends to prefer brackish (semi-salty) water.

A “tortoise,” in contrast, likes to dwell on land….at least in theory.

Of course, this still doesn’t explain how the “box turtle,” a land-dwelling yet water-loving shelled being, got classified as a turtle and not a tortoise. But in fact, in some places, a box turtle IS called a box tortoise, just to prove that all of this really is as confusing as it sounds.

Speaking of which, occasionally the scientists who think this stuff up decide they’ve changed their minds. When this happens, they call for something called a “taxonomic revision.”

Given that scientists who work with DNA and microscopes are involved in such revision requests, this tends to make things more complicated rather than less (a good example is this 2013 study here).

Bruce can swim, and perhaps that is relevant here (his little sister, Malti, who is a red footed tortoise, sinks like a rock in any pool deeper than ankle-high).

But mostly, I tend to focus on the “box” part of the “box turtle” classification. For now, we’ll just let the scientists sort out the rest.

And remember….

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Published by Shannon Cutts

Animal sensitive and intuitive with Animal Love Languages. Parrot, tortoise and box turtle mama. Dachshund auntie.

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