Turtle or tortoise? What’s the difference?  

Turtle or tortoise - w

Happy Exotics Month, CHS Supporters! We hope you are loving the August weather and also enjoying our celebration of the lesser known critters here at Calgary Humane Society.

This week on the blog we bring you an answer to one of our most popular questions: What is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?

Turtles and tortoises are indeed related. Very closely related, in fact! Both turtles and tortoises are members of the order testudines. An ‘order’ is a level of the taxonomic system that biologists use to classify different species (the scientific taxonomy levels from broad to specific are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). All species that belong to the order testudines are tetropods (they have 4 limbs) with a true turtle shell (made up of a carapace on the turtle’s back and a plastron on the turtle’s belly).

While turtles and tortoises are distant relatives, you won’t be finding them at the same family reunion, because turtles belong to several different families while tortoises all belong to the testudinidae family. If you are interested in turtle taxonomy you can find some great resources online that will tell you how biologists sort these cool critters into different families!

Scientific classification aside, there are also several differences between turtles and tortoises that may help you decide which type of animal would be a better pet for your family. In addition to telling you about these, we’re also going to introduce you to the noble terrapin as well!

Tortoises are land dwellers. In fact, most tortoises can’t swim well and can drown if placed in water that is too deep. Tortoises typically eat grasses, shrubs and other vegetation (including some species that eat cactus!) as well as the occasional bite of fruit. Feeding a tortoise the wrong kind of food can cause serious problems with shell growth so careful research into your tortoise’s proper diet is a must! Tortoise shells are dome shaped and supported by short legs with sturdy feet. In addition to being land-dwelling herbivores with bulkier shells, tortoises live MUCH longer than turtles! Many species of tortoise will live to be 80-150 years old and tortoises suspected of being more than 300 years old have been discovered!

Turtles, on the other hand, LOVE the water and spend a majority of their time swimming, floating and even sleeping in the water! Turtles have flat, streamlined shells that make them more hydrodynamic in the water. Hydrodynamic means that water flows over the turtle’s shell much like air flows over an airplane wing. Unlike tortoises that have sturdy feet, turtles have webbed feet to help with swimming, but both turtles and tortoises have claws! Turtles generally have lighter shells than tortoises. When it comes to diet, turtles are omnivorous, eating both vegetation and meat. The exact make up of your turtle’s diet will depend on the type of turtle you have and the type of food available in your turtle’s natural environment.

We have one last term to tell you about! Terrapins!

Terrapins are still the subject of some biological debate, but most of the time the term is used to describe small freshwater or brackish water turtles. Terrapin is an Algonquin word and is mostly used in North America. Terrapins generally divide their time between land and water, spending more time on land than an ocean turtle, but less time on land than a tortoise. Red-eared sliders are a good example of a terrapin!

Do you have a question you would love to see answered during exotics month? Ask us on our Facebook wall and we will try to answer it in a future blog!