Turtles vs Tortoises: The Astonishing Differences

Turtles vs Tortoises: The Astonishing Differences

box turtle

Turtle or tortoise? And how do you know?

Confusing! What exactly is the difference between turtles vs tortoises. Or are they one & the same? Let’s find out.

A quick overview of turtles vs tortoises


A tortoise lives on land and has stubby feet used for walking

turtle vs tortoise

A turtle lives in or near water & has webbed feet for swimming

First, all reptiles with a hard shell attached to their bodies are turtles. So sea turtles, box turtles, gopher & desert tortoises and diamondback terrapins are all classified as turtles.

Think of tortoises & terrapins as different species of turtles. So what are the differences between turtles vs tortoises? And what the heck is a terrapin?

Generally, tortoises live on land & turtles live near or in water. Sounds pretty simple. But then you have some turtles that look & act more like tortoises since they live mostly on land. For example, the box turtle. Then throw in the terrapins and now I am really confused!

tortoise vs turtle

A gopher tortoise coming out of its burrow

The differences between turtles and tortoises

So let’s go through the difference between turtles vs tortoises step by step. And some of the terms are used differently depending on the country in which you live so we will focus on the US for this example.

Turtles live in water most of the time. Think about sea turtles. Their bodies are adapted for swimming, including webbed feet or flippers and flat shells streamlined for swimming. They are omnivores meaning they eat both plants & animals. Examples include all 7 of the sea turtle species, softshell turtles, spotted & snapping turtles and many more. And to learn more about sea turtles, read our fun facts on Sea Turtles.

Tortoises live mostly on land and have stumpy feet with claws for digging burrows. Their shells are more domed. And they are herbivores meaning they eat mostly plants. Examples include the Galapagos turtle, radiated tortoise & the gopher tortoise.

And then there are terrapins. Living in water & on land,  they make their homes in swamps, bogs, ponds & rivers. While many turtles are called terrapins, there is only one true species, the diamondback terrapin. And guess what? They are carnivorous which means they eat mostly meat including mussels, crabs & clams. Ok, glad we got that straight!  Now that we know the differences, what are the similarities?

Do turtles have teeth?

do turtles have teeth

Do turtles have teeth?

First of all, tortoises and turtles don’t have teeth. Well, newborn turtles have one tooth but we will get to it in a minute.

Ok, so how do they chew? Why they use their beaks of course, just like birds. Each beak is different depending on whether the turtle is eating plants or meat. Once they have scooped up the food with their beak, they use their powerful jaw to swallow the food whole.

And sea turtles actually have spikes to allow them to swallow jellyfish, its favorite food, without getting stung. Back to the baby turtle. All turtles are hatched from eggs, again like birds. So they need a way to break the hard shell of the egg to get out. That’s where the egg tooth comes into play. They are born with a sharp “tooth” to help them penetrate the shell. After they have hatched, the tooth falls off. Pretty cool.

Similarities between a tortoise vs turtle

turtles on a log

Why do you see turtles on a log? They are warming their body temperature with the sun.

A couple of additional ways they are similar:


  • All turtles and tortoises lay their eggs on land, in sand, dirt, or even vegetation.
  • A hard shell grows with the turtle’s body.
  • And every tortoise and turtle regulates their body temperatures by absorbing heat from the environment. Their body temperature fluctuates depending on the air temperature. This is one reason you will see turtles basking in the sun on a log or tortoises burrowing in the dirt to get cool.

Some turtles act more like tortoises

Turtle vs tortoise

Box turtles are turtles, yet have many characteristics of tortoises.

Some turtles just act more like tortoises than water-loving turtles. We saved this box turtle which we found upside down in a hole filled with water on our property. Clearly, it was not happy in the water & would have drowned had we not seen it.

And the bad thing is we created the hole and did not properly fill it with dirt. To read more about this wildlife rescue and others, including a sweet opossum rescue, check out our blog How To Do Successful Wildlife Rescues.

Box turtles look like tortoises with their domed shell and live in the woods.  So you can see why it is confusing. On the surface, this looks and acts like a tortoise, but is actually part of the pond turtle family.

What about bog turtles?

bog turtles

A baby bog turtle hatching from an egg. Photo: Mike Knoerr

And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention our very favorite turtle, the bog turtle. Critically endangered and only living in small bog pockets in the Eastern US, they are by far the cutest! And you can learn all about them in our “Bog Turtles” cool fact sheet.

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