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aquatic turtles
walking in the woods
fruits and vegetables
sea turtle
eating meat
Turtle Or Tortoise | What’s The Difference?
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Turtle Or Tortoise | What’s the Difference?

When you are walking in the woods and come across a turtle or tortoise, do you know which it is? There are some distinct differences that are apparent right away. If you know these few identifying facts, you will know the difference between a turtle and a tortoise and look like an expert to those walking with you.

Please note that the information below pertains to the differences generally accepted in the United States. Some other countries use the terms more interchangeably or give the Chelonia (overall species name) different distinctions in their definitions.


Turtles are aquatic or semi-aquatic and live in and near bodies of water. Semi-aquatic turtles divide their time on land and water more equally than aquatic turtles who spend the majority of their time in the water. Some folks make the distinction more apparent by referring to semi-aquatic turtles as terrapins. Terrapin means “little turtle”.

Ever see small bodies of water in Florida? Then you probably see the heads of turtles come to the surface when they spot food. You may also see them sunning on rocks jutting out from the top of the water. Turtles can be found near fresh or brackish water or in salt water.

The bodies of turtles are thinner and more streamlined from top to bottom (vertically speaking) than their cousin, the tortoise. Thus, turtles can move through water easily. They also have webbed feet to aid their aquatic activities. Some turtles, like the sea turtle which is commonly well-known, have legs that are more fin-like for heavy duty swimming. They are very cumbersome on land but are very adept in water.

Turtles are omnivorous often eating meat more than fruits and vegetables. I suppose this is because there is more opportunity for protein-base foods in the water. Fish, bugs, and worms are common in a turtle’s diet.

Turtles love to sun and they love to keep warm. If they do feel overheated, they will find a shady spot in the water or on land to cool off.


Tortoises live primarily on land. Some take brief forays into very shallow water, mostly to use the water as a loo. And they are vegetarian all the way. Living on land gives them greater access to fruits and vegetables.

They are stockier overall and their top shells (carapace) rises much higher than a turtle’s. Tortoises have very chubby legs and large feet armed with thick claws. The easier to navigate various terrains.

Like turtles, tortoises like to sun but not as much as turtles. They find shade on land when they want to cool themselves.

Here’s a short quiz. Answers below :) No peeking!

Scenario #1. You see a creature with a high-backed shell lumbering along on stubby legs and clawed, un-webbed feet. Tortoise or turtle?

Scenario #2. You see something lying on a rock in the middle of a pond. It has a shell but it is not very high. The creature has it’s legs extended and is enjoying the sun. Turtle or tortoise?

That’s it for the quiz! If you answered tortoise for the first one, you are aces.And if you answered turtle for the second one, you now know enough to look like an expert! If you got them wrong, see the principal!

Street Talk

Not much different where I am, the same facts apply, great article.

  about 1 decade ago

I enjoyed your article very much, AnnMarie. It is very interesting and I love that picture. It reminds me of when I was little and had a turtle.

  about 1 decade ago

That's Big T when he was a tiny baby....he's fully grown now - about 10 inches from nose to tail tip. He's m' Boy!

  about 1 decade ago

I passed! Thanks for explaining the difference. I thought everything was a turtle except the giant tortoises that are 2 feet long. Now, I know the difference :)

  about 1 decade ago

:) You're welcome. Thanks for reading the article. Remember what defines the difference in the US is not how they are defined in some other countries.

  about 1 decade ago
Joan S  

Hey, I got 100 on that test!

  about 1 decade ago

LOL - Congrats...You're an expert now.! So you don't have to go to the principal's office!

  about 1 decade ago

Great Article. I guess I never thought there was a difference. I love it when I learn something new.

  about 1 decade ago

You must have time on your hands, Daniel. You are on top of your tribe! I am finding it hard to find time to get to all the new articles that pop up in my inbox from SA. I have an aquatic turtle - a red-eared-slider I named Big T. He's real fun to have as a pet.

  about 1 decade ago
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