Difference between Tortoise and Turtle

Tortoises and Turtles both belong to class Reptilia of the order Testudines of Animalia kingdom. The word "Testudine" is derived from a Latin word, ‘Testa’, which means shell. Both, tortoises, and turtles have shells on their back to protect them from predators and various threats. They both lay eggs into the burrows. They both apparently look similar, but they have distinctive anatomical features as well as different habitat and behavior. They have been existing on the Earth since 200 million years.

Read through this article to find out how turtles are different from tortoises.

What is a Tortoise?

Tortoise is a terrestrial reptile of order Testudine, means having hard shell on their body and sub-order Cryptodira (Greek word for "hidden neck"), which means it is capable to pull back its head and neck into its shell.

Characteristics of a Tortoise

Here are some noticeable characteristics of Tortoise −

  • A tortoise can hide its head, tail, and limbs under its shell.

  • It has a proper structure of ribs, and a spine like vertebrates have, inside its shell.

  • Its shell is deeply round and scaly. It is not a single-piece; it is a mesh of around 60 bony plates. The shell is divided into outside and inside layers: the outside layer is called Carapace, which has scales called "Scutes". The inside shell is called a Plastron. Both shells are joint by a bridge. The shell is very sensitive.

  • It is sensitive to bright colors and even the lightest scents.

  • The color of the shell can tell the origin of the tortoise. The shell color helps tortoise camouflage with the surrounding. For example, a desert tortoise has tan or camel color.

  • It has no teeth. It has hard ridges to chew the food.

  • It has no ears. It has two small holes, on the sides of its head.

  • It has thick and short legs.

  • The rings around the Scutes can tell the age of the tortoise.

  • It is diurnal reptile, means it is active during day and inactive during night.

  • It can live from 90 years to 250 years.

Species of Tortoise

The species of largest tortoises are −

  • African Spurred Tortoise − It can weigh up to 100 kg.

  • Aldabra Giant Tortoise

  • Galapagos Tortoise − It can weigh up to 200 kg and can grow up to 1 m in length.

  • Indian Star tortoise − It is an endangered species.

What is a Turtle?

Turtle is an aquatic reptile having hard shell on their body and it is capable of pulling back its head and neck into its shell.

Characteristics of Turtle

  • Turtle can pull back its head, tail, and limbs under its shell.

  • It has a proper structure of ribs, and a spine like vertebrates have, inside its shell.

  • Its shell is almost flat, providing it with aerodynamic shape for diving and swimming.

  • It has flipper-like forelimbs and webbed hindlimbs which can make it easy to paddle while swimming. They have three to five toes on each limb.

  • It spends most of its time underwater and occasionally comes on surface/land for air.

  • Some turtles obtain oxygen from their skin.

  • Turtle’s shell is very sensitive to softest touch.

  • Turtle sheds off its scutes to dry its shell and make room for new scutes. While being on land, turtles often rub their shells against trees to shed off the old scutes.

  • They live from 30 years to 70 years.

Species of Turtles

Here is a list of some of the species of Turtles −

  • American Box Turtle
  • Kemp’s Ridley − The smallest, rarest, and endangered species.
  • Leatherback Turtle
  • Loggerhead Turtle
  • Olive Ridley turtle − The smallest sea turtle found in India.

Difference between Tortoise and Turtle

Here are some prominent differences between Turtles and Tortoises −

Key Factor Tortoises Turtles
Body Structure They have short and thick legs, and deep dome-shaped shells. Their shells are heavy. They have flippers and almost flat shells. Their shells are comparatively lighter.
Limbs/legs They have legs with toes and claws. Due to short legs and heavy weight, they move very slowly. They have flipper-like limbs which enables them to dive and swim swiftly.
Habitat They are exclusively land animals. They live in deserts, forests, and grasslands. They only visit waterbodies for drinking water and occasional baths. They are mainly water animals. They can be aquatic or semi aquatic; but they are definitely not the landdwellers. They can be found in sea, rivers, swamps, and lakes.
Food They are generally herbivorous. They eat leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, and grass. They are omnivorous. They eat seaweed, sponges, and small sea animals such as fish and clams. They can tolerate some toxic sea-weeds.
Swimming Ability They can’t swim but they can hold their breath for long time under water. They have high tolerance of CO2. They are exceptional swimmers.
Lifespan The lifespan of Tortoises is longer than turtles; they can live up to 90 years to 250 years. They are the longest-living land animals. Turtles can live up to 30 to 70 years.
Hatchings Tortoise hatchings move out of their burrow with mother soon after their birth. Turtle hatchings stay in their burrows up to 3-4 months after their birth.

Some interesting facts about Tortoises and Turtles −

  • Tortoises can smell with the help of their throat.

  • A group of tortoises is called a Creep, whereas a group of turtles is called a Bele.

  • When they lay eggs, the environmental temperature determines the gender of the offspring. At temperature higher than 30 degrees, the eggs form female fetus and at lower temperature, male fetuses are formed.

  • Sea turtles seem to cry because they excrete sea salt from their eyes.


Although tortoises and turtles look quite similar at a glance, they are very different from each other. Apart from some similarities like being reptiles with hard shells, being able to pull back external organs, lack of ears and teeth, etc., the major differences between them lie in their habitat, food habits, body structure, and lifespan.

Updated on: 29-Sep-2022


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