Turtle, Tortoise or Terrapins?
What’s the difference between turtle and tortoise and terrapins?
We’ve all heard the terms used, and there are many people who use these terms interchangeably; but while there certainly are similarities, there are many differences.
What Are The Similarities?
Let’s start with the similarities. All turtles, tortoises and terrapins are reptiles, and they all fall under the same classification – Testudines.
All three are ectothermic, meaning their body temperature is based on the temperature of the air or water surrounding them.
They all lay eggs, they all breathe air and they all have scales and shells. But this is where the similarities start to end.
If these basics are all similar, why the three different names? The difference comes in the habitat and the diet of the reptile, as well as the shape of its shell.
There may also be a difference in the names where you live. In the USA, all members of the Chelonian family are called turtles.
In the UK and most of Europe, the word terrapin is used when talking about freshwater turtles and the word turtle in used when talking about sea turtles.
In Australia, both sea and freshwater varieties are known as turtles.
Differences Between Turtle And Tortoise And Terrapins
Starting with the basics, turtles spend most of their lives in water, including freshwater and saltwater.
Tortoises spend all their time on land with some living thousands of kilometres from major water sources.
Terrapins are the crossover between the two, with their habitats divided between marshy, brackish waters and land.
This is however where it can get a little confusing if you just happen across a turtle (or is it a terrapin) out of the water?
You’ll find both turtles and terrapins will leave the water to bask in the sun, using rocks, logs, sand and other surfaces to get the most of the warm sunlight.
Turtle, Tortoise And Terrapin Habitats
As we’ve mentioned above, tortoises live mainly on dry land, and you’ll find them in hot, dry areas such as parts of North America, Mediterranean Europe and Asia.
Sea turtles spend much of their life at sea, only coming ashore to lay eggs and can be found all over the world.
Terrapins, or freshwater turtles, live in brackish or freshwater creeks, lakes and ponds across the world. They may be found in stagnant or flowing waterways
Turtles and terrapins have webbed feet helping them swim, while sea turtles have feet that are like flippers helping them glide through the water.
The feet of a tortoise however are very different. Their feet are stumpy, helping them walk long distances across land – you won’t see tortoises swimming with feet like these!
Their front legs are used to dig, while for freshwater turtles and terrapins, they often tear apart food with their claws.
- Often referred to as sea turtles
- Live in oceans across the world
- Only access land to lay eggs
- Streamlined, flatter shell to help with gliding through the water
- Flippers instead of legs
- Grow up to almost 2 metres
Many species are omnivorous, enjoying seaweed and algae as well as smaller prey. The Leatherback turtle eats jellyfish regularly.
- Live on dry land
- Live in hot, dry climates
- Tortoises in areas with colder winters may hibernate
- Domed shell
- Stubby legs for walking
- Don’t swim
- Can vary in size from 25cm through to over 1 metre
- Almost entirely vegetarian however some may eat a small amount of meat
- Live in freshwater rivers, creeks and ponds, both stagnant and flowing
- Flatter shell to help with swimming
- Legs with webbed feet and claws
- Good climbers and will climb riverbanks to bask
- Grow to the size of a dinner plate
- Can live up to 50 years
- Most species in Australia are omnivorous eating weed, small fish, small crustaceans and berries. Others are carnivorous, only eating fish, shrimp, crayfish and the like.
It is easy to mistake turtles and terrapins, especially when you’re in a country that calls them all turtles!
While turtles and terrapins have their similarities, they also have their differences, namely their habitat, the amount of time they spend out of the water and the food they eat.
Tortoises are of course quite different.
So, what’s the easiest way to remember who is who in the turtle world?
Turtles are often referred to as sea turtles and only leave the water to lay eggs.
Terrapins live in the water, however will leave the water to lay eggs and bask in the sun, as well as to move from space to space.
Tortoises live on land and spend their time on land – they don’t swim, they don’t hunt and have a majority vegetarian diet.