Turtle vs. Tortoise: What’s the Difference?

Turtle Climbing out of Bin

For many people in the world the term “turtle” encompasses every reptile with a shell on it’s back, but it’s not quite that simple.

While there are many similarities between turtles and tortoises they are actually very different creatures!

Let’s start with the shells!

Both turtles and tortoises have similar shells. These shells are made up of a carapace (the top) and a plastron (the bottom) which are connected on the sides.

These two pieces of shell are actually made up of the animal’s ribs and spine, and they keep him protected from predators that would normally prey on slow moving creatures.

As an added bit of protection turtles and tortoises also have scutes on the top of their carapace. These scutes are made of keratin and are basically like a skin covering the bones of the animal.

While some turtles may shed their scutes over time tortoises do not, theirs just continue to grow as they do!

Fun Fact: Depending on the species, scutes can be vibrantly colored like that of the box turtle or drab like the Galapagos tortoise.

Tortoise Super Up Close

It’s a common misconception that the shell of a turtle or tortoise is simply that, a shell, but unlike hermit crabs it is impossible for a turtle or tortoise to live without his shell.

You see the shell of these creatures has actually evolved over time, and is made up of the animal’s rib cage and spinal cord.

While this is a super cool adaptation, it is one that comes with a lot of responsibility!

The shell of a turtle or tortoise is a good indicator of it’s health.

While wild animals shells are usually in great condition—unless they have been involved in an accident like a narrow escape from an alligator or a hit and run by a car, those in captivity can experience quite a few more issues.

Shell rot is one of those issues. Found almost exclusively in captive turtles and tortoises this disease is caused by poor husbandry and results in ulcers on the shell.

If you notice ulcers on your pet’s shell be sure to get him to a vet immediately as this condition must be treated with antibiotics and if left unchecked can be life threatening!

Pyramiding is another disease found mostly with captive turtles and tortoises that causes the shell to grow unevenly into a pyramid shape.

Caused by a poor diet, a lack of certain vitamins, minerals, or sunlight, or too little or too much humidity this disease can be life threatening if the causes are not discovered and rectified.

Unfortunately, once pyramiding has occurred there is no way to reverse it, but you can make changes to the animal’s diet and environment to prevent further incorrect growth.

Tortoise on the Pavement Outside

Now on to the differences!

1. One of the main differences between turtles and tortoises is that of habitat. Tortoises are terrestrial, while turtles spend the majority of their time in the water.

2. Another is their anatomy. Most turtles have webbed feet to help them move around in the water with ease, while tortoises have thicker, stockier feet that allow them to carry their heavy bodies and move around on land.

3. For the most part, turtles have much lighter shells than that of their terrestrial cousin, the tortoise. This is to keep them aerodynamic, help them swim faster, and make it easier on their thinner legs when they come onto land for short amounts of time.

4. While most tortoises are almost exclusively herbivores due to their slow moving speeds, turtles are omnivores and will eat just about anything they can find from fish, to plants and bugs.

Due to habitat loss, other environmental changes and the pet trade, many turtles and tortoises have found themselves on the endangered species list.

My personal favorite species, The Egyptian or Kleinmann’s Tortoise is one such species.

Listed as Critically endangered, these tiny tortoises are facing extinction if something can’t be done to end their illegal capture and protect pockets of their habitat for future generations.

You may be wondering what exactly you can do to help and fortunately helping is easy. One of the most important things we can do as consumers is hold those we shop with to higher standards.

Make sure the pet stores where you shop sell only captively born and bred reptiles and amphibians.

While they can always lie the easiest way to find out whether or not they are an environmentally friendly supplier is asking where they get their animals.

Only the shadiest of pet stores will sell wild caught animals, but it is very common for them to sell captive born.

What exactly is the difference between captive born and captive bred?

Captive born simply means that the animal was born in captivity, while that is a step in the right direction it isn’t enough. Captive born means that while the animal was born in captivity his mother may have been wild caught while gravid (pregnant).

This is why as consumers we need to make sure every animal we purchase is from a line of animals that has been in captivity for several generations.

While it can be hard to be sure that your pet store animals were responsibly sourced it is very easy to find a local breeder that can help you find the perfect pet.

Many cities hold quarterly reptile shows where you can meet breeders in the area and see a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians.

This is the best place to get a new pet as you have the opportunity to talk to the person who is breeding and get to know their animals.

Be sure any animal you bring home looks healthy, avoid any animals that have discharge coming from their eyes or nose, or have tiny black dots on their scales as these can be mites.

Turtle on Brown Spanish Tile

Another way to help our reptile friends the turtle and the tortoise is by volunteering, fostering or adopting from a local reptile rescue.

There are an overwhelming number of unwanted reptiles and amphibians, and many rescues are underfunded and understaffed.

If your locality doesn’t have a rescue be sure to check with your local wildlife center as they may actually be the rescue for your area!

Always remember to do your research! Whether you simply love admiring turtles and tortoises in the wild or you want to have one as a pet, keep in mind that knowledge is power.

You can never know too much about the creatures around you, and if you are considering getting one as a pet he will thank you for doing your research before bringing him home!

Bonus: Check out this awesome article if you are considering getting a reptile as a pet!! 


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