Tortoise Versus Turtle

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Malti is a tortoise.

The day I first brought her home was about the same moment I realized I didn’t know the difference between a “tortoise” and a “turtle.”

Then people started asking me, the new turtle-tortoise owner, “Hey, so what is the difference between a ‘tortoise’ and a ‘turtle?'”


“Hmmmm. Well, ummm, uh…..”

So here are some basics to help you tell a turtle from a tortoise.

The following notes are not at all scientific – just a few highlights to help you eyeball-guess which might be which if you need to know in a hurry. 🙂

Malti, aka a tortoise. (with delicious dandelion.)

A Tortoise….

  • Is a reptile (cold-blooded).
  • Lives on land.
  • FYI: “Box turtle” is also a type of tortoise.
  • Tends to be slow-moving.
  • Some are arid (desert) species and some are tropical (hot, humid) species.
  • Is NOT a great swimmer but will seek out water to drink, shallow-soak and bathe.
  • Likes to sun-bask for warmth and UV light.
  • Some species will hibernate by digging a deep burrow in the ground.
  • Typically has stronger forelegs for digging.
  • Skin is rougher and thicker and legs are stubbier and wider.
  • Lays eggs on land in underground nests.
  • Shells are heavier and often dome-like/less smooth in appearance.
  • Diet is either herbivorous or omnivorous, depending on species.
  • Typical lifespan is 30 or more years…some species can live for 200 years or longer!
A yellow-eared slider. She is one of the turtles that lives in the garden pond behind our casa.

A Turtle…..

  • Is a reptile (cold-blooded).
  • Lives mostly in water.
  • Is a great swimmer!
  • FYI: “Terrapin” = spends equal time in water and on land.
  • Can move fast whether in water or on land.
  • Enjoys sun-basking on rocks in/near ponds, lakes, bayous, et al.
  • Will go into torpor (similar to hibernation) by burrowing in mud in cold weather.
  • Typically has longer, stronger, lean legs with webbed feet.
  • Lays eggs on land in underground nests.
  • Shells are more lightweight and flat/streamlined looking.
  • Will eat a varied omnivorous diet (greens, fruits, insects, et al).
  • Typical lifespan is 20 to 40 years….but some species can live much longer.
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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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