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The Difference Between a Turtle and Tortoise

  |   Wildlife & Flora

The Galapagos Islands are rightly famous for their giant tortoises, attracting hordes of visitors eager to witness one of the world’s most ancient and longest-lived creatures. But the islands are also home to many fascinating species of turtle which can be seen beneath the water or basking on sunny shores. Due to the many apparent similarities between turtles and tortoises, a common question on the minds of many visitors is “how do you tell the difference between the two?”

Galapagos Sea Turtle

First off, let’s focus on the similarities. Turtles and tortoises are both types of reptile, specifically of the order Testudines which are also known as chelonians. They possess all the major characteristics of any reptile which include being cold-blooded, having scaly skin, breathing in the air (rather than in water) and laying eggs (usually on the land). 


Another important similarity they share are their hard protective shells, although there are some significant differences in terms of physical appearance to bear in mind that are discussed below. Both turtles and tortoises are also ectothermic, meaning they rely on external sources of heat like the sun to warm their bodies. Beyond the basic reptilian classification, things get a little more complicated. 


Galapagos Sea Turtle

The Differences

Individual species of turtles and tortoises are commonly confused. But using precise scientific terminology can help us better differentiate them. Scientists actually classify all tortoises as turtles, but not vice versa. This is because tortoises belong to the Testudinidae family which is actually a group within the larger Testudines order described above.

What complicates matters further are the regional differences in semantics. Depending on where you are in the world, the word “turtle” might be used to refer to completely different things. In the US, “turtle” is used for chelonians that are aquatic or semi-aquatic, whilst “tortoise” is used for those residing on land. In the UK, a different term entirely - “terrapin” - refers to those living in freshwater environments, whilst “turtle” is used for salt water species. Meanwhile, in Australia, it’s common to refer to all turtles not residing in the ocean as “tortoises”.

All this being said, there are several commonly accepted differences between turtles and tortoises that revolve principally around habitat, physical appearance and behaviour. Here are some of the major differences to bear in mind if you’re looking to spot the difference between the two. 



Galapagos Snorkeling


Turtles spend most of their lives residing in or near to the water, including the ocean, bodies of freshwater and marshlands. Some types, known as sea or marine turtles, are almost entirely aquatic, only venturing ashore to lay their eggs. Other species are semi-aquatic and spend a significant amount of time on the land, typically residing near freshwater lakes and ponds. These types of turtles do swim, but also spend a great deal of time basking on shores and sometimes burrowing into the ground. 

In stark contrast, tortoises are strictly terrestrial animals. They lack the ability to swim, only venture near water to clean or drink and are known to be vulnerable to drowning in deep water or strong currents. They reside in a wide variety of climates and landscapes including many places far removed from water sources such as deserts. 



Galapagos Tortoise

Physical Appearance

Most turtles spend a great deal of time in the water, so they have evolved many features that make them ideally adapted to the aquatic environment. This includes flattened webbed feet for swimming, as well as flippers in the case of sea turtles. They also have a much more streamlined body shape compared to tortoises, including a shell that is typically smaller, lighter and flatter. 

A tortoise’s physique reflects its land-based habitat. Tortoises are larger, heavier and bulkier than turtles. They have round stubby feet which help them navigate rocky terrain. Their sharp claws are ideally suited for digging burrows, which they often do as a means of shelter in hot, dry environments. Tortoise shells are also larger, with a higher dome, and play an important protective role against land-based predators.



Galapagos Tortoise


Turtles are omnivores, consuming a variety of animal and plant life depending on the particular species. This may include algae, insects, small fish, jellyfish and sea sponges. They typically mate in the water and can either lay their eggs in the water or on the shore, depending on the type of turtle. The average life span for a turtle is 20 to 40 years, though this is significantly longer for sea turtles who live to around 60 or 70 years. 

The diet of tortoises consists mainly of low-lying vegetation, including a wide variety of grasses, cacti, shrubs, fruits and flowers. They are primarily herbivorous, though some species have been known to eat insects and worms. Interestingly, tortoises have a far longer life span than most turtles, averaging around 80 years, with some being known to live for well over 150 years.  



To sum up, if it’s aquatic or semi-aquatic, has a physique well-adapted to the water, as well as being omnivorous then it’s a turtle. If it’s terrestrial and herbivorous, with a large dome-like shell and stubby non-webbed feet then you have a tortoise.  

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge to tell the difference, why not put it to the test on a trip to the Galapagos? This is the ideal destination to observe many species of turtle and tortoise, including the endangered green sea turtle and the legendary giant tortoises, along with plenty more fantastic and unique wildlife. For more information about booking a Galapagos tour, contact us.

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