Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise: Key Differences Explained

Written by Colby Maxwell
Published: July 2, 2022
© Seregraff/
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Turtles are some of the most unique reptiles around! Various members of the species live in the ocean, on land, and even in swamps. Two of the most famous turtles are snapping turtles and tortoises. Although both of these animals are very similar, there are some distinct differences between them. Today, we are going to take a look at them both to get an idea of just how unique they are. Let’s discover: Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise; what makes them different?

Comparing a Snapping Turtle and a Tortoise

Snapping turtles and tortoises differ in size, appearance, habitat, and diet.


Snapping turtleTortoise
TaxonomyOrder: Testudines
Genus: Chelydra
Order: Testudines
Family: Testudinidae
SizeWeight: 10-35 lbsWeight: 2.4 ounces to 700 lbs
AppearanceLong serpentine neck, rounded flat shells. Legs suited for swimming, not walking.Heavy-bodied with small heads. Domed shells are usually segmented. Legs suited for land.
HabitatWater systems across most of the United States.Arid and semi-arid environments across the world.
DietOmnivorous. Fish, frogs, lizards, and more.Herbivores. Grasses, weeds, greens, flowers, and fruits.

The 5 main differences between a Snapping Turtle and a Tortoise

The main difference between a snapping turtle and a tortoise is that snapping turtles are aquatic, omnivorous, and only live in the Americas. Tortoises are terrestrial, herbivorous, and live across the world.

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Snapping turtles are a group of turtles that encompasses only four species, three in Chelydra and a fourth, the alligator snapping turtle. The common snapping turtle is the most widespread and common across its range and is often the one people refer to when referencing a “snapping turtle.” “Tortoise” isn’t actually a scientific naming category but is more commonly used to refer to slow-moving terrestrial turtles. General American usage classifies a tortoise as a land-dwelling turtle, with the exception of the box turtle group.

Although snapping turtles and land-dwelling turtles (tortoises) are similar, there are some major differences that separate them. Snapping turtles can get quite large, with the alligator snapping turtle being the largest freshwater turtle in the United States. Even still, the largest tortoises weigh significantly more.

In regards to appearance, each group reflects its preferred habitat. Snapping turtles have webbed feet and slide their stomachs across the ground when moving. Tortoises usually hold themselves much higher and have strong, sturdy legs to support the large weights that they often carry.

Let’s go over these differences, plus some others, in more detail below!

Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise: Taxonomy

Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise
Snapping turtles belong to the Chelydra genus, while tortoises are members of the Testudinidae family.

©Tyler Clemons/

The common snapping turtle belongs to the Testudines order, along with all other turtles. Additionally, the common snapper belongs to the Chelydra, along with two other species that can be found in Central and South America.

Tortoises are also members of the Testudines order, along with every species of turtle on earth. As tortoises don’t have their own genus, the highest classification they have is the Testudinidae family. Testudinidae simply means “tortoise” in Latin.

Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise: Size

Slowest Animals: Giant Tortoise
The largest tortoises in the world are much bigger than snapping turtles.

©Jenny Sturm/

Snapping turtles are some of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. The exact size depends on the species, but the common snapping turtle usually weighs 10-35 lbs, with extra-large individuals weighing as much as 75 lbs. The alligator snapping turtle is the largest snapping turtle and can weigh as much as 175 lbs.

Despite snapping turtles being large, they don’t compare to the largest tortoises. The largest tortoise species are the Galapagos tortoise and the Aldabra giant tortoise. These tortoises can reach weights of 700 lbs. On the other side, the smallest tortoises can weigh as little as 3.5 ounces.

Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise: Appearance

Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise
Snapping turtles are aquatic turtles that have rounded, smooth shells.

©Patrick Rolands/

Turtles generally have a similar body layout, but there are some differences across species. Snapping turtles usually have a flatter, smoother shell and small plastron (under shell). Additionally, they are designed for aquatic life and have legs and feet designed for swimming. They also have large beak-like mouths than can snap close quickly, giving them their name.

Tortoise shells are more often domed and have a more rounded shape. Additionally, their shells are usually segmented and have hexagonal designs across them. Tortoises are made for land and have features to complement this, including strong, stocky legs and a lack of webbing.

Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise: Habitat

Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise
Tortoises prefer arid regions but can be found all over.


The snapping turtle is an aquatic animal that prefers creeks, rivers, lakes, ponds, and swamps. Although it spends most of its time in the water, it can walk on land. Snapping turtles can be found across most of the United States, even in cold waters to the north. Their range extends as far west as Idaho.

Tortoises are generalists that can be found in an array of habitats depending on the species. Still, they are most often found in arid or semi-arid environments but can also be found in mountains, evergreen forests, and more.

Snapping Turtle vs Tortoise: Diet

Tiny red-footed tortoise in the process of biting a small strawberry. They are omnivores that eat what is available in its environment.
Tortoises are herbivores that eat grasses, leaves, fruits, and veggies.


The snapping turtle is technically an omnivore, but its predatory skill is widely known. It will eat almost anything small enough to swallow, including invertebrates, fish, lizards, other turtles, and even small birds.

Tortoises are almost entirely herbivorous as a group. Generally, they prefer grasses, weeds, flowers, fruits, and other vegetation. Tortoises kept as pets are often fed lettuce and fresh veggies.

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The Featured Image

Close-up of Red-footed tortoise, Chelonoidis carbonaria. They have red markings on their face that contrast with their otherwise drab coloring.
Close-up of Red-footed tortoise, Chelonoidis carbonaria. They have red markings on their face that contrast with their otherwise drab coloring.
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About the Author

Colby is a freelance writer from Charlotte, North Carolina. When he isn't distracted by his backyard birdfeeder, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone around him about what he's recently learned. There's a whole world to learn about and Colby is content to spend his life learning as much as he can about it!

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