Difference Between Turtle and Tortoise

Confusion is not just limited to the English dictionary. It is also there on the animal planet.

Most of you have seen tortoises in the zoo or on television at some point in life. Until now, most of you thought that both turtles and tortoises are the same.

The term “turtle” can easily be used to point out any reptile that has a protective shell. This classification can be divided even further into the primary varieties of turtles.

A turtle is, well, a turtle. However, the other variety is a tortoise.

Turtle vs Tortoise

The difference between turtle and atortoise is that a tortoise is designed by nature to survive on land. So, what you have seen in zoos are tortoises and not turtles. On the other hand, turtles are more fortunate of the two.

Turtle vs Tortoise

It is designed to survive both on land and in water. Thus, what you have seen on the National Geographic channel floating around underwater is a turtle.


Comparison Table

Parameter of ComparisonTurtleTortoise
DefinitionTurtles are a type of reptiles that are mainly characterized by their cartilaginous or bony shell that gets developed directly from the ribs.Tortoises are also reptiles and belong to the family of Testudinidae.
The shape of the ShellThe shell is mostly streamlined and flat.The shell is mostly large and dome-shaped that appears as bumps on top.
LimbsHave webbed feet and long claws.Tortoises have short feet that are sturdy and slightly bent.
BirthBaby turtles remain in their nest for around 90 days to 120 days.Baby tortoises tend to move away from their nest to a burrow that is made by their mother within a few days after birth.
Lifespan20 years to 40 years.80 years to 150 years.
DietTurtles are omnivorous and prefer to have fruits, meat, and leafy veggies.Tortoises are mainly herbivorous by nature, although some species prefer live food.
Weight of the ShellShells are normally light-weight.Shells are much heavier.
DistributionAmerica and Africa.Mostly found in Africa and Asia.


What is Turtle?

Several types of reptiles are present on land and underwater. Turtles are one of them.

These reptiles have a streamlined and flat shell that originates from their ribs and also acts as a shield for them.

When you talk about a turtle, it may refer to either the sea-dwelling and fresh-water Testudines, which is British English or as a whole in American English.

The classification of Testudines includes extinct species, as well as, living or extant species. The first-ever known variety of this specific group goes back to the Mid Jurassic age.

This makes turtles one of the more ancient and oldest reptile groups than any type of crocodilians or snakes.

There are a total of 356 varieties of turtles that are alive today. Of these, some fall under the group of endangered species.

Based on the way turtles pull their necks back into their respective shells, they are classified into 2 primary groups. The mechanism that helps a turtle retracts its neck into its shell differs phylogenetically.

The Cryptodira class of turtles retract their necks straight back, whereas, the Pleurodira class of turtles retract their necks anterior to shoulder girdles and laterally to either side.


What is Tortoise?

Tortoises also belong to the reptile species and more specifically to the Testudinidae family.

Tortoises are easily distinguishable from other forms of turtles due to their natural land-dwelling nature. As discussed above, most of the turtles prefer to spend their lives underwater.

Just like any other turtle species, tortoises also have their shells that save them from attacks from predators. Tortoise shells are normally bigger and harder than turtle shells.

They retract their head and neck into their shells when they sense any danger.

To be more specific, tortoises are different from other vertebrates. Their pelvic and pectoral girdles are located inside their ribcage and not outside like any other vertebrate.

Tortoises are normally reclusive animals and vary in size, ranging from a couple of centimeters to almost 2 meters.

They are generally diurnal by nature and sometimes show tendencies of being crepuscular. This largely depends upon the surrounding temperature.


Main Differences Between Turtle and Tortoise

  1. Both turtles and tortoises are reptiles and belong to the Chelonian family. However, the former is mainly found underwater and the latter is found on land.
  2. Turtles are mainly found in the waters of America and Africa, whereas, tortoises are found on the lands of Africa and Asia.
  3. Turtles have streamlined and flat shells that help them to swim underwater. Tortoises have thicker, bigger, and heavier dome-shaped shells that provide better protection from probable danger.
  4. The feet of turtles are webbed and have long claws. However, tortoises have bent legs that are sturdy and short.
  5. Turtles like to feed on meat, leafy vegetation, fruits, and veggies and are termed as omnivores. On the other hand, tortoises are herbivores and like to feed on green vegetation. However, some species like to eat live food.
  6. Turtles belong to a variety of families such as Carettochelyidae or the pig-nosed type of turtle, Emydidae or the water or pond turtles, and Dermatemydidae or the Central American river turtles.
Difference Between Turtle and Tortoise


  1. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/eeob_ag_pubs/166/
  2. https://www.physiology.org/doi/pdf/10.1152/ajplegacy.1966.210.1.198
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Lorel Magazi
Lorel Magazi

This is a common question and easy to get confused about turtle and tortoise. Thanks for providing this difference.

Piyush Yadav
Piyush Yadav
Reply to  Lorel Magazi

Hi Lorel,
You are welcome.