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When it comes to slow-moving animals with large shells, the tortoise and turtle both spring to mind straight away. Turtles and tortoises look very similar and both can make great pets. However, there are a few key differences!

In this article, you’ll learn exactly what these differences between the tortoise and the turtle are.

Let’s start with some common questions…

Turtle saying he's better in the match up of tortoise vs turtle

Is a tortoise a reptile?

Yes, as a matter a fact, both turtles and tortoises are reptiles. Both turtles and tortoises are cold-blooded, breath air through their lungs right from birth and are born on land.

These are some of the main differences between reptiles and other types of animals like amphibians or mammals.

So, if a tortoise is a reptile and a turtle is too, then what is the difference between these two rather similar looking animals?

The main differences between turtles and tortoises

There are a few easy to spot differences between turtles and tortoises and we’ll go through each of them here now.

Where they live

People often get confused between these two animals, but the easiest difference to remember is that turtles live mainly in water, while tortoises mainly live on land. Turtles generally only come onto land to lay their eggs and then head back to the water.

That being said, there are also turtles who like to bask in the sun. Since they are cold-blooded, a lot of turtles that live in rivers and lakes tend to enjoy basking to heat up.

Generally though, tortoises are found on the land and turtles in (or just next to) the water!

The shell

Another difference between turtles and tortoises is the shape of their shell. As you can probably imagine, turtles would have a hard time moving forwards in the water if they had a heavy rounded shell.

This is why evolution has given them flatter, lighter and more aerodynamic shells. Their shells are also a lot softer than tortoises shells.

This prevents them from getting overly tired when moving through the water.

Tortoises need their hard shell to protect it from predators as they aren’t as nimble as their water-loving counterparts.


The differences in diet have a lot to do with the differences in where they live. Tortoises are herbivores and eat plants. However, a lot of turtles are carnivores and will prey on insects, snails, and even fish!

You may think that turtles are slow but that isn’t the case when you see them in the water! Tortoises are quite slow, but even they will surprise you if they are nice and warm and can pick up quite the pace.

The feet

This one may be kind of obvious, but tortoises and turtles feet are also far from the same. It’s hard enough swimming with a large shell, let alone having to do it with bulky feet as the tortoise has.

Luckily, the turtle has webbed feet to help propel itself forwards through the water. Some turtles even have fins instead of legs. This really depends on where they live and these are usually the ones who live mainly in the ocean.

Turtles who live in rivers and lakes, like the red-eared slider or even the alligator snapping turtle, both have webbed feet instead of flipper-like arms and legs.

These are usually the turtles that you can see basking during the day. This is probably the reason why they didn’t go for the flippers but went for webbed feet instead.


Even though most turtles live quite long, tortoises have them beat when it comes to longevity. Most turtles reach an age of about 10-30 years old, while there are tortoises who live for more than 100 years!

On average though, the tortoises and turtles you generally get as a pet will live around 35-55 years (tortoises) and 15-25 years (turtles).

Tortoise saying he's better in the match up of turtle vs tortoise

What’s a terrapin and why are they making things more complicated for us?

Hold on a second… You mean there’s a different shelled reptile too?

Well, not really. The name terrapin is often given to those turtles that have webbed feet and leave the water regularly to bask.

The word terrapin is used in some areas of the world but not in others. Seen as the differences between tortoises and turtles are so small, then adding terrapin as a name for the animal that falls in between these two, sort of makes sense.

However, to prevent confusion, we’re going to leave the terrapin out for now. It’s just another word for turtle after all.

Has this post got you interested in tortoises and turtles? If so, check out our article on the best pet tortoises!


Even though a lot of people use both tortoise and turtle interchangeably, there is certainly a difference between the two. Luckily, after reading this article you know exactly what the difference is and are in a great position to help anyone else out who makes this mistake.

Remember to keep herping and to enjoy your reptiles!

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