Tortoise vs Turtle: 10 Biggest Differences Explained

Written by Heather Hall
Updated: September 21, 2022
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Key Points:
  • Physically, the tortoise has a dome-shaped shell that is large and heavy, whereas the turtle’s shell is lightweight and flat to allow for greater speed. The turtle’s feet are webbed with long claws and its legs are streamlined. The tortoise has bent legs that are short and sturdy.
  • The lifespans of tortoises and turtles differ, with tortoises living for 80-150 years, while turtles only live for 20-40 years.
  • Most tortoises are exclusively herbivores, consuming only plants, whereas turtles are omnivores, consuming plants and meat.

Are you confused about the differences between Tortoise vs Turtle? You’re not alone! At a glance, both creatures appear to have lots of similarities. It’s easy to assume that you can use the words “tortoise” and “turtle” interchangeably, but that isn’t the case. In reality, although both creatures belong to the same kingdom, phylum, class, and order, tortoises exclusively belong to the Testudinidae family while turtles span an array of families. They share many physical similarities, but turtles and tortoises also have several physical differences, and these differences make it reasonably easy to tell them apart. For example, tortoises’ carapaces, or upper shells, are heavy, large, and domed; turtles’ carapaces, on the other hand, are lightweight, streamlined for speed, and flat.

If you look at Tortoise vs Turtle, they exhibit distinct behaviors that also help to differentiate them from each other. Upon being born, for instance, tortoise hatchlings leave the nest immediately while turtle hatchlings remain in the nest independently for 90 to 120 days. Tortoises are almost exclusively herbivores, but turtles are true omnivores, regularly consuming both plants and animals. Another critical difference between tortoises and turtles is that the former lives for 80 to 150 years while the latter has an average lifespan of 20 to 40 years.

Comparing Tortoise vs. Turtle

HabitatOn land most of the timeIn water some or all of the time
DistributionAsia, Africa, AmericasAfrica, America
ClimateTropical and sub-tropicalMostly tropical and sub-tropical, but many species can hibernate over long winters.
LimbsShort, sturdy, bent legs that look like an elephant’sStreamlined legs, webbed feet, and long claws
Shell ShapeLarge, heavy, and dome-shapedStreamlined for speed, lightweight and flat
Lifespan80 to 150 years20 to 40 years
DietMostly herbivorous, but some eat live foodOmnivorous
BirthHatchlings move from the nest quicklyHatchlings remain in the nest on their own for 90 to 120 days
HibernationDo not hibernateMay hibernate in cold climates

The 10 Key Differences Between Turtles and Tortoises

1. Tortoise vs Turtle: Classification

One factor that causes a lot of confusion between tortoises and turtles is how they are classified. In terms of similarities, both creatures belong to the Animalia kingdom, the Chordata phylum, the Reptilia class, and the Testudines order. Tortoises belong exclusively to the family Testudinidae, but turtles belong to numerous different families. Therefore, if you are certain a creature is a tortoise, you can be equally certain that it belongs to the Testudinidae family, which spans 11 genera and 40 to 50 species.

2. Tortoise vs Turtle: Habitat

Tortoises live exclusively on land. Turtles, on the other hand, are in the water some or all of the time. Therefore, you are unlikely to find turtles far from water, but it’s not unusual to find tortoises in more land-locked areas.

3. Tortoise vs Turtle: Distribution

Turtles are primarily found in Africa and America. Tortoises, however, are mostly found in Asia and Africa. Many tortoise species are found in the Americas too. Most famously, tortoises are found in the Galapagos Islands, which are off the coast of South America.

4. Tortoise vs Turtle: Climate

Tortoises are almost exclusively found in tropical and subtropical climates. However, some species can limit their metabolisms to cope with temperature drops. Turtles are also overwhelmingly found in tropical and subtropical climates. Because they hibernate, however, they tend to do well in a greater variety of climates than tortoises.

5. Tortoise vs Turtle: Limbs

The limbs on a tortoise look remarkably similar to those of an elephant. They are sturdy and short, and they bend. Meanwhile, turtles, which spend lots of time swimming, have streamlined legs with webbed feet and long claws. These features allow them to attain higher speeds in the water.

6. Tortoise vs Turtle: Shell Shape

Turtles’ shells help them move well in the water, so they are lightweight, flat, and streamlined. Tortoiseshells, on the other hand, are designed more for protection on land. Therefore, they are heavy, oversized and concave, or dome-shaped.

7. Tortoise vs Turtle: Lifespan

Tortoises are among the longest-living creatures on earth. Depending on the species, they can live anywhere from 80 to 150 years. The average lifespan for a turtle is significantly less at 20 to 40 years.

8. Tortoise vs Turtle: Diet

Turtles consume vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, and meat, making them true omnivores. Most tortoises, however, almost exclusively subsist on plants. Therefore, they are considered herbivores.

The types of meat that wild turtles eat include fish, small insects, snails, and worms. Young turtles are mostly carnivorous, as their bodies need the vitamins and nutrients contained in protein to grow.

9. Tortoise vs Turtle: Birth

After hatching, baby turtles typically remain on their own in the nest for 90 to 120 days. Tortoise hatchlings, on the other hand, typically leave the nest quickly after birth.

10. Tortoise vs Turtle: Hibernation

Some species of turtles hibernate through the winter in cold climates – typically along riverbanks. Meanwhile, because they live almost exclusively in tropical and sub-tropical climates, tortoises do not hibernate. However, they may limit their metabolisms in case of cold or otherwise harsh weather.

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About the Author

Heather Hall is a writer at A-Z Animals, where her primary focus is on plants and animals. Heather has been writing and editing since 2012 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, Heather enjoys hiking, gardening, and trail running through the mountains with her dogs.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are tortoises and turtles related?

Yes, tortoises and turtles are related. Both creatures belong to the kingdom Animalia, the phylum Chordata, the class Reptilia and the order Testudines. However, tortoises exclusively belong to the family Testudinidae while turtles belong to numerous different families.

Why do Americans call tortoises turtles?

Technically, the word “tortoise” refers to any species that belongs to the family Testudinidae. Testudinidae is just one of many families belonging to the order Testudines, however, which includes turtles. For this reason, it can be said that all tortoises are turtles, but all turtles are not tortoises. Since neither tortoises nor turtles are found in Europe, the terms tend to be used interchangeably in many parts of the world.

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