Turtles and Tortoises

There are 360 species of turtles and tortoises on our planet, and they all fall under the same family Order: Testudines. These reptiles are unique creatures with many fascinating features.

We will look at a few of the major similarities and differences between turtles and tortoises. Nomenclature for these animals varies among countries; we won’t go into that here.

The fundamental difference between turtles and tortoises is where they live–land or water–and how their bodies have evolved to accommodate their environment.

Some of the ways turtles and tortoises are alike: both are cold-blooded (like all reptiles), lay their eggs on land, and have air-breathing lungs.

Just like their lizard cousins, turtles and tortoises need the sun to thermoregulate. Many of us have witnessed this sight before.

The carapaces (shells) of turtles and tortoises differ somewhat. But for both, the carapace is a permanent body part, it is never shed.

There are many of Earth’s creatures that have carapaces: armadillos, shell fish, crabs, most mollusks, beetles, and more.

But turtles and tortoises are the only reptiles with a shell.

Derived from bone, the carapace is permanently connected to the spine and ribs. During development, the ribs grow sideways and enter the animal’s skin, and then develop into broad, flat plates. They form their own personal armor.

More info: Turtle Wikipedia and Tortoise Wikipedia

Interesting Chart showing common species of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

And a few of the ways turtles and tortoises differ….

A turtle’s carapace is relatively flat and thin to help with diving and swimming. Small turtles have feet that are webbed or clawed to aid in swimming and climbing onto rocks.

Large turtles have flippers, as you can see (below).

This turtle, below, doesn’t have a full, hard shell (like most). It is classified as a softshell turtle because the carapace is not fully bone. In the center it has a layer of bone, while the edges are made of cartilage and are leathery. It allows them to move more flexibly on muddy lake bottoms, and more quickly on land.

Sea turtles are one of my favorite creatures on earth. There are seven species in the world. In the U.S. we have six species and all are listed as endangered or threatened. Much work has been done to protect our big sea turtles, but there is still a lot left to do to ensure their survival.

Just like the smaller turtles, sea turtles live mostly in the water, coming to shore to bask in the sunshine and/or lay eggs in the sand.

Under water the sea turtles glide with beauty, ease and speed. They are omnivores and spend their submerged time foraging on sea grass, like this one below, as well as jellies and invertebrates.

But turtles breathe air and must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs.

They labor on land, moving slowly and awkwardly. They use their flippers as best they can, but the earth is not water.

Sea turtles are about four feet long (1.2 m) and weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kg). They generally live about 80 years.

So turtles are omnivores and built to swim and flourish in the water.

Conversely, tortoises are strictly land creatures. They cannot swim.

Their carapaces are heavy and domed for protection against predators. Their legs are short and sturdy to accommodate the heft. Their feet are padded and stumpy, and the front legs are scaled to protect the tortoise while burrowing.

We found this gopher tortoise while visiting the Jacksonville Botanical Gardens. It was about the size of a dinner plate. We were surprised at how quickly it was moving because tortoises are generally very slow. Things to do.

There is dispute about how far back into the ages turtles and tortoises go. But it doesn’t take a scientist to look at their ancient faces and see they are very old creatures.

And that brings us to the longest living land animal in the world: the Giant Tortoise.

While many of the Giant Tortoise species are now extinct, we still have a few living species on remote islands in the Seychelles and Galapagos.

I was fortunate to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, where they have a breeding program and conservation practices for the perpetuation of the Giant Tortoise. To date there are 16 separate populations on ten of the largest Galapagos Islands.

We spent the afternoon in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island (Galapagos), where we came upon several of these most mesmerizing and magnificent creatures.

They have an average lifespan of 90-100 years, though there are records of some living longer, up to 188 years. They are herbivores, foraging on grasses, cacti, and fruit; and move very, very slowly.

We patiently and appreciatively watched this Galapagos Tortoise on the trail. It took about 20 minutes for it to travel 60 feet (18 m).

They are the Granddaddy of all tortoises, some weighing up to 919 pounds (417 kg).

That day it was quiet in the highland forest, and the tortoises were docile. Except for one sound.

They can pull their heads into their carapaces, like many tortoises and turtles, and when they do the most astounding thing happens. This slow and quiet animal releases a loud hissing sound.

The hiss is the result of the individual releasing the air in its lungs to make room inside the shell for the head.

We came upon these three Galapagos Tortoises sleeping in the mud, while ducks paddled and frigatebirds circled overhead.

The sleeping tortoises looked like boulders.

Every few minutes, a frigatebird, one of Earth’s largest sea birds, would dip its bill into the pond and take a sip.

For more info about Turtle and Tortoises differences click here — Turtle vs. Tortoise.

Turtles and tortoises, several hundred different species on our planet. They use the sun to create their energy and walk through life with a shell on their back. That is one unusual and beautiful being.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

75 thoughts on “Turtles and Tortoises

  1. I love turtles. We have snappers , box turtles and red eared sliders. I think the red eared sliders were the cute little turtles they used to sell in the pet shops that grew up and were released into the clear ditch and river. They have manged to adapt to and survive our cold winters over the years.

    • It is clear you love turtles, Timothy, by your ability to name three different species in the area. I read that red-eared sliders are a common pet release, confirming your thoughts. Here’s to turtles, my friend. And many thanks.

  2. I always wonder about the box turtle – isn’t it really a tortoise? I worked on the desert tortoise project in Nevada one season. Fascinating creatures that live underground most of the year. I managed to witness a battle between two rival males, one much older and larger. Of course, we were required to process both of them. You’d be surprised at how fast that you get male moved, trying to get away!

  3. I’ve always been fascinated by turtles and tortoises, they are like living dinosaurs to me. The tortoises esp. seem so old and wise. I read recently that after twenty years of sea turtle conservation, the early ones that were born protected are now returning to breed, and the numbers are promising. It will take decades to recover the numbers there once was, but there is hope.

    • You and I both share a fascination for turtles and tortoises, Eliza. And it is indeed exciting to see new generations being born, but yes, it will take a long time to recover some species. So many species are now unrecoverable, so we are lucky conservation stepped in. Always a joy to see you.

  4. Thanks for this interesting post with pictures and full of info. We didn’t know anything about turtles. You changed this.
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Oh that’s interesting, Wayne, that you have no turtles on Vancouver Island. With all the intrepid outdoor and wildlife adventures you have there, I know you would know. What an honor for me to bring them to you. Thank you, Wayne, always a joy.

      • I find it truly thrilling that my post inspired you to look up turtles on Vancouver Island, Wayne, and am delighted to hear of the Leatherbacks there. Thanks for the link, and thanks for letting me know. I so hope you will one day get to see a leatherback. For that matter, I hope I, too, get to see one some day. Cheers to turtles, my friend.

    • I liked hearing that you once saw a wild turtle swimming off the coast of Turkey, Andrea. That you remember and treasure that experience says a lot about turtles. Thanks very much for your visit today.

  5. Your experience as a teacher once again comes through to benefit us all. Your “class” on turtles & tortoises is educational in the very best of senses & I sat with rapt attention. A.’s photo of the frigate-bird astounds me!

    • Your compliment about my teaching lesson on turtles and tortoises is especially appreciated, Walt, knowing you, too, are a teacher. And yes, isn’t that a fabulous frigatebird photo? We were so thrilled to see them dipping into the water, they were so much lower than their usual high-sky altitudes. Many thanks, my friend, and much appreciated.

  6. We had a cactus garden that was home to three desert tortoises. They mirrored the size and behavior of the Three Stooges so we named them Larry, Moe and Curly. Moe was always trying to tip over the other two. It was amazing to watch them eat cacti without getting injured by the thorny spines.

    One day, Curly burrowed under a fence and was gone. Really, how far can a tortoise go? Days later, my dad was driving through the countryside and spotted a tortoise strapped to the back of a motorcycle. Curly had an identification marker on his shell so there was no mistake that this was our runaway tortoise.

    The cyclist said that he had spotted the tortoise in the middle of the road. His first concern was to save the creature, but then it became a traveling companion. The rider graciously returned Curly to my dad.

    Curly’s first meal when he got home? His favorites — watermelon and lettuce.

    • I SO enjoyed this story of Larry, Moe and Curly, David! How great to have three desert tortoises enjoying your cactus garden, entertaining and educating you. Then to have recovered Curly. And the image of a desert tortoise on the back of a motorcycle has me smiling as I type. Great story and much appreciated, David.

    • I completely agree, Jan. Just watching the giant tortoise and soaking up the appearance and size of them is mesmerizing and enjoyable. Incredible creatures. Thank you, Jan, a joy to see you today.

  7. Ever since we had Georgie the red-eared turtle when we were kids, all of us (my brother and sisters) love turtles. I suppose it shows the benefit of having pets. Now as adults, we are all kindly disposed toward turtles of all kinds, and hope for their survival. Another great post, Jet. Thanks.

  8. I can’t recall if I’ve already mentioned this (sorry if I have) but we occasionally get some Leatherback Turtles coming up our estuary in the summer – due to the large number of jellyfish which appear. I can’t wait to try and get a photograph if they do. 😊

    • Oh wow, Mike. How wonderful that you get occasional Leatherbacks in your estuary. How incredible! Interesting that they follow the jellyfish. Athena and I once followed sea turtles while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. It was thrilling until they led us into a cloud of jellyfish. We got out of there pretty fast. I hope if your Leatherbacks appear this summer you will get a chance to see and photograph them. What a thrill that would be! Thanks so much, Mike.

    • Thank you, Mark. I really had fun putting this post together. I do love that photo of the tortoises in the mud. They just looked like big rocks! I’m glad you appreciated it. Thanks Mark, good to see you.

  9. Mystery solved, had a bunch of pictures of an apparent Florida Softshell Turtle but was having problems IDing it – also loved the frigatebird shot – those are really cool birds and hope to get one in the tin someday, always seem to be at the wrong place when one is spotted.

    • I am glad you have photos and have observed the Florida Softshell Turtle, Brian. Aren’t they so very cool? And I’m glad you enjoyed the frigatebird photo. I almost didn’t put it in, because it wasn’t a turtle or tortoise, but the frigatebirds were so prevalent in that pond scene with the giant tortoises…and frigatebirds are truly one of my favorite birds, so how could I leave that out? Many thanks, Brian, for your visit.

    • Wonderful to have you stop by, Sherry, and to share the marvels of wildlife with you. I find turtles always seem gentle, too. And many times I have swam next to them, and they were gentle. Frigatebirds are one of my favorite birds, and I am so glad you had the pleasure of seeing them in Panama. Many thanks, dear Sherry.

  10. This was fascinating! I knew of the land vs. sea difference but wasn’t aware of all the other differences between turtles and tortoises. I can’t even fathom the enormity of the Galapagos tortoises and how neat that must have been to see them. It’s amazing how much they really do just look like rocks while sleeping. I imagine you could walk right past one and not realize what it is.

    • I so enjoyed your comment, Diana, thank you. The world of turtles and tortoises is indeed fascinating, and I appreciate your receptiveness to it. I just love that those delightful Galapagos tortoises still exist on our planet and that I could share them with you. Thanks so much for your visit.

  11. I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a tortoise, although I may have, in my travels. Texas has a single species of tortoise, the Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlanderi) and a single species of terrapin, the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin). The remaining 28 species of the order Testudines here are turtles.

    There are two things about turtles you might find interesting. When they’re lying on a log, with all four feet spread out, it’s part of their termoregulation; they’re expanding the amount of flesh available to soak up sunlight. And when they’re on the move, heading into the mud in fall or out of the mud in spring, they often cross our roads, and some get hit by cars. If their internal organs aren’t damaged, shells can be fiberglassed together. There’s a woman in the area who does it, and during our ‘turtle seasons’ I always carry a box and a towel in the trunk, just in case I need to turn myself into a turtle transporter.

    • Linda, I have never heard of repairing turtle shells with fiberglass and after your info here, I surfed around and found yes, indeed, vets fix turtles’ shells if the organs are still intact. That astounds me! Thanks so much for this enlightening info. I love that you carry a box and towel in the trunk for this purpose. I’m smiling at this.

    • It does not surprise me that you had a pet snapping turtle, Craig, with your lifelong interest and love for creatures. And your pondering about box turtles. I am happy you stopped by, thanks so much, my friend.

  12. Unique creatures with fascinating features? Yes! I can’t help but smile when seeing a turtle or tortoise, they really are wonderful. I enjoyed reading about your encounters, the delight you have shared, and Athena’s photography – thanks, Jet!

    • It is always a pleasure to have you stop by, pc, and your astute appreciation of the words and photos is much enjoyed. I agree with you, the turtles and tortoises really are wonderful. I hope your weekend is a lovely one.

  13. Another amazing and informative post. I’ve never paid a great deal of time on turtles or tortoises, so I had a whole bunch to learn here. You DO get around! 😉

  14. Interesting information about creatures familiar to me.
    We have them both in Florida. I am not knowledgeable
    about their life however and what you share here is helpful
    in understanding them more. Thank you Jet for the great photos
    and explanations. hugs, Eddie

    • Eddie, my friend, always a delight to have you drop in here. That you have both turtles and tortoises where you live does not surprise me. In my research on this post, I discovered that the Southeast U.S. is one of the richest places in the world for turtles and tortoises. My recent trip to GA is what inspired this post, because I was frequently amazed at all the turtles and tortoises we came across. How very delightful. A joy to share these interesting reptiles with you, my friend.

  15. I’ve often wondered about the differences, Jet, so I was happy to read this. Funny but tortoises always look quite grumpy to me, but I guess if you travel so slowly then you have good cause. Wouldn’t do for us impatient types. We have terrapins locally,and at least they can glide through the water.

    • Hi Jo, I so enjoyed hearing your fun thoughts on the slowness and grumpy looks of turtles and tortoises, gave me a smile. Also liked hearing about your terrapins. My warmest thanks to you, Jo.

  16. This post is packed with absolutely fascinating information about turtles and tortoises, thank you, Jet! I, too, I really enjoy learning more about turtles and tortoises, and of course we have many different kinds of both right here in Palm Beach County, including the magnificent sea turtles that nest along our beaches. These photographs are all wonderful – May I give kudos to Athena!?

    • Always a pleasure to hear from you, BJ, and I am smiling, pleased, that you learned from and enjoyed the turtles and tortoises post. How wonderful that you have a variety in Florida, and even nesting sea turtles. I will extend your appreciation of the photos to Athena, too. Many thanks, my friend.

  17. My husband shares your love of sea turtles. He collects sea turtle figurines and has turtle art on our walls. 😊 Thank you for all this fascinating information, including the helpful links, and the amazing photographs. The Green Sea Turtle in Belize is especially beautiful. What a magnificent creature!

    • I am happy you enjoyed the turtles and tortoises post, Barbara. It was fun to share some highlights about these magnificent creatures. Turtle art is a favorite for me, too, something your husband and I have in common. I have a little turtle lamp and a treasured pair of turquoise turtle earrings. I, too, like that green sea turtle photo from Belize. That particular place we snorkeled had a lot of white sand so it made for a good backdrop. Always a pleasure to see you, Barbara, thank you.

  18. What an interesting read, Jet. I never knew about a tortoise hissing to make room for his head to fit in his shell. Makes sense. I love sea turtles and got to release some babies from a hatchery in Mexico. But I never appreciated the individuality of a single turtle until I almost stepped on a baby snapper while walking the neighborhood. I took him home and we found an old aquarium and decided to keep him through the winter and release him when he got a little bigger. That little turtle, Lucky we called him, would get so excited when we came into the room. Now when we go to the lake where we released him and see turtle heads peaking from the lake’s surface we wonder it one of them is Lucky. Thanks for this post, Jet, very enjoyable.

  19. i love turtles. they are fascinating and beautiful creatures! very informative as always, Jet and the photos are superb! thank you and happy thanksgiving to you and Athena! 🙂

    • Yes, it is fun to come upon the turtles in our planet’s waters, isn’t it, Wilma? I’m glad you enjoyed the turtles and tortoises post. And I send my hardiest thanks for your Thanksgiving wishes, and send the same back to you. So much to be thankful for….

  20. What a fine collection of turtles and tortoises you and Athena have collected in your travels, Jet. Many more than the few species I see here. And my favorite turtle pose is a lineup so I love the pond turtles.

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