Are Turtles Mammals?

Brazilian Turtle
© Kurit afshen/

Written by Krishna Maxwell

Updated: September 23, 2022

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Turtles are not mammals, they are reptiles. Mammals are animals that usually have hair or fur. Cetaceans have lost their fur to make them more streamlined as they swim, but once in a while, a whale is found with a whisker or two. Mammals have vertebrae and are warm-blooded, though there are mammals, such as the rock hyrax and the sloth that aren’t as warm-blooded as a mammal usually is. Mammals breathe air. This includes cetaceans such as dolphins and whales and sirenians such as manatees, who live their entire lives in water. Most of all, mammals nurse their babies with milk.

The majority of mammals give birth to live young, though the platypus and the echidna lay eggs. Most mammals are also placental. The placenta is a structure that delivers nutrients to the developing baby in the uterus. However, other mammals are marsupials, whose babies are born in a basically embryonic state and continue the rest of their development in their mother’s pouch. Mammals as a class of animals are also younger than reptiles and diverged from them around 300 million years ago.

The cold-blooded turtle is a reptile rather than a mammal.

©Kurit afshen/

Why Would People Think Turtles are Mammals?

People may think turtles are mammals because they breathe air and have vertebrae. One might even think that turtles are mammals because their meat is used in soups and stews as the meat of mammals such as cows and pigs are used in soups and stews.

So, now that we know turtles are not mammals, what are they? The turtle is considered a diapsid reptile, which means it has two holes in the sides of its skull. This puts the turtle in the same group of reptiles as snakes, crocodiles, some lizards, and tuataras. Interestingly, birds are also in this group of animals.

Though some reptiles give birth to live young, most lay eggs.


Reptiles, the class to which turtles belong, developed about 312 million years ago. They are generally cold-blooded, which means their body temperature is determined by their environment. They do not have hair or fur, and their exposed skin is covered with scales or scutes. Turtles stand out from other reptiles, indeed from other vertebrates, in that they have a shell that is part of their skeleton. It is covered with scutes, a type of scale that is covered with keratin.

Reptiles may give birth to live young but most lay eggs. The extent of parental care depends on the species. Turtles only lay eggs, and they only lay eggs on land. Besides covering up her eggs after she’s laid them in the woods or on a beach, a turtle provides no parental care at all. Turtles do not have mammary glands and do not produce milk for their young, which is the primary characteristic of mammals.

Though there are turtles that spend much of their lives in water such as the sea turtles, all turtles must breathe air. If you live near any body of water, you may find turtles wandering around in late spring. These are usually females looking for a spot with soft, sandy soil to lay their eggs.

The greatest threat to turtles is loss of habitat and getting hit by a car. Turtles often cross roads looking for appropriate nesting areas or seeking new habitat and traffic is a major threat to them. You are most likely to see turtles in the roads from late May to early July. If you do see one in the road and can stop safely, you can pick them up by the sides of their shells and move them to the side of the road. Take them to whichever side of the road they are facing. You just might save an entire turtle generation!

Up Next…

  • Painted Turtle These lovely turtles have bright red highlights on the edges of their shells. They often live in ponds and enjoy sunning themselves on floating logs or rocks near the shoreline.
  • Snapping Turtle If you want to get an idea about what a dinosaur might have looked like, check out snapping turtles. Although you should do it from a safe distance!
  • Wood Turtle If you are lucky, you might find one of these near areas that have both woods and water nearby.

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About the Author

Krishna is a lifelong animal owner and advocate. She owns and operates a small farm in upstate New York which she shares with three dogs, four donkeys, one mule, and a cat. She holds a Bachelors in Agricultural Technology and has extensive experience in animal health and welfare. When not working with her own animals and tending her farm, Krishna is helping other animal owners with behavior or management issues and teaching neighboring farmers about Regenerative Agriculture practices.

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