What Is the Difference Between A Turtle & A Tortoise?

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There is something peaceful about the way a turtle swims in the water or the way a tortoise lumbers on land. While the term “turtle” is an umbrella term that includes tortoises within it there are actually many differences. Today we will learn what makes turtles and tortoises different.

Turtles vs Tortoises: 3 Key Differences

There are several key differences between a turtle and a tortoise. It is a common misconception that they are inherently the same, though understandable so as they both come from the same genus. Today we will be looking at 3 major differences, so without further adieu I give you the matchup: turtle vs tortoise:

  • Feet, Webbed Feet, and Flippers
  • Shells and Schutes
  • Swimming Ability

Difference 1: Feet, Webbed Feet, and Flippers

The first difference between a turtle and a tortoise is all about the feet. Freshwater turtles are semi-aquatic in nature and are therefore adapted to such environments via having webbed feet to aid in swimming. Solely the aquatic sea turtles have adapted flippers, as they only come onto land temporarily to hide their eggs on sandy beaches and are quite clumsy while doing so. Tortoises on the other hand, are land-based reptiles and have non-webbed elephant-like feet better suited to long land voyages over uneven terrain. 

Difference 2: Shells and Schutes

The second difference in what makes turtles and tortoises different is the fact that turtles will shed the outer layer of their shells which keeps them streamlined and hydrodynamic for swimming. Turtles and tortoises alike grow what are called schutes or layers of the shell underneath the outer layers. Tortoises however, do not shed older schutes. One thing to consider while keeping a tortoise as a pet is that their shell will get thicker and taller with age, which will also increase their weight. In nature this provides valuable protection against potential predators.

Difference 3: Swimming Ability

The third difference is turtles have the ability to swim quite well and fast, however tortoises have great difficulty navigating aquatic environments due to their feet and can drown in a matter of minutes, making tortoises very poor swimmers. Whereas turtles have incredible breath holding abilities, ranging from 10-30 minutes while active to 4-7 hours while inactive. A major consideration when considering keeping a turtle as a pet is to be aware in may potentially spend hours submerged in water which isn’t unusual. Certain breeds of turtles (like the painted turtle) can even remain submerged for months while brumating, which is the hibernation equivalent for reptiles.

How to Identify Whether It’s A Tortoise or a Turtle

The easiest way to identify the difference is to look at the feet. Simply put, if it has flippers then it is a sea turtle meant for saltwater. If it has webbed feet, then it is a freshwater turtle. Lastly, if it does not have webbed feet but rather has elephant-looking feet then it is a land tortoise. 

Can Turtles & Tortoises Be Kept As Pets?

The short answer is yes, however there are many considerations to be had. Their needs and the equipment required to maintain healthy and happy lifestyles are actually quite varied and may change even depending upon the specific breed, so be sure to do your research. Among reptile enthusiasts both are considered excellent pets, however they are not as low maintenance as their lazy demeanor seem to indicate. 

The first consideration when keeping a turtle as a pet is that many breeds can live longer than 20 years. While young they need to be fed daily but as they grow older can be scaled back to 4-5 feedings a week. Secondly, even small turtles require about 30 gallons of water in an aquarium, as well as a heat lamp and ample land room to come up for feeding. Be sure to consider that they will need growing room and may require an aquarium upgrade as they age. 

The same goes for considering a tortoise as a pet, which can live for over 50 years. Whereas they do not require aquariums filled with water they will need about a 50 gallon volume terrarium. While they do need water to drink it is important not to fill the terrarium with it as the tortoise can easily drown (as mentioned above, they are very poor swimmers). 

In both cases, turtles and tortoises are cold blooded and they will need a heat lamp, humidity and plenty of room to grow. They are both vegetarians and thrive on a diet that is mostly vegetable based, supplemented with a few fruits. Many breeds of turtles are also omnivores and may have certain insects added to the mix as well. Both will need their environments cleaned on at least a weekly basis. 

Very importantly, reptiles can transmit salmonella so be sure to consider washing their enclosures outdoors when possible and not in your indoor sinks. Because of this illness risk and their long lifespans, also consider how they will do if you live with or are planning on having children. Elderly persons or those with compromised immune systems may also be at risk so be sure to take the necessary precautions and keep everyone’s hands washed after interacting with your reptile. 

Common Misconceptions About Turtles and Tortoises

Perhaps the most common misconception between turtles and tortoises is the belief that they are both aquatic. This misconception likely comes from the fact that tortoises are considered a part of the turtle family, sharing the word “turtle” as an umbrella term. Tortoises do not swim very well and are much more likely to drown than make it across a river. 

Another misconception is the belief that they are cheap, low maintenance pets. This is far from the truth as both need specific environments and equipment in order to survive, will need plenty of room to grow and may require upgrades to their aquariums and terrariums as they live through decades-long lifespans. These special creatures may also need specialized veterinary care which can be more expensive than a trip for your cat or dog would be.

The last misconception I will cover is the belief that it is ok to paint, place stickers on, or otherwise decorate your reptile’s shell. The shell is the most important part of these creatures’ bodies for releasing excess heat and they can quickly overheat if their shells are covered. Furthermore the shell absorbs UVB rays and having obstructions to these rays can cause a range of health issues and deficiencies.


So now you know what makes turtles and tortoises different. While they share an umbrella term and genus they have a wide variety of different needs. From land to sea these creatures have as many differences as similarities. I would highly encourage you to do independent in-depth research before considering adopting a turtle or tortoise as a pet, while they make an excellent addition to the family they live long lives and need a lot of care. 

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