Turtle vs. Tortoise

Turtle vs. Tortoise

Turtle and tortoise are ancient reptiles that appeared on Earth 157 million years ago. There are more than 300 species of turtles and tortoises that can be found on all continents except Antarctica. Nearly all species of sea turtles and many species of tortoises are listed as endangered due to uncontrolled hunting (for their meat, skin and shell), collecting of eggs, habitat destruction and pollution of the water. Turtles and tortoises are morphologically very similar, but they can be easily differentiated by:

Type of Habitat

Tortoises are adapted to the life on the solid ground, while turtles spend almost entire life in the water (they visit land only to lay eggs). Turtles live in tropical and semi-tropical areas and inhabit oceans, swamps, lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Tortoises also prefer warm climate, but they inhabit deserts, grasslands and forests. Some species of turtles are semi-aquatic. They spend part of their life in the water and other part on the shore, where they bask in the sun and hide in the mud.

Shape of the Body, Legs and Shell

Turtles have flat shell and streamlined body which facilitates movement through the water. Instead of legs, turtles have flippers or large, webbed feet which function like paddles. Tortoises have dome-shaped shell and bent legs with sturdy feet equipped with claws, used for digging of burrows. Shells of tortoises are generally heavier. Turtles need to have light-weight shells to prevent sinking in the water.


Most tortoises are vegetarians. Their diet is based on the low growing plants, grass, cacti, fruit, flowers and shrubs. Turtle are omnivores. Their diet consists of small fish, insects, jellyfish and leafy vegetation.

Ability to Hide Their Legs and Head Inside the Shell

Tortoises can hide their head and legs inside the shell, while turtles can't (their head and legs are always exposed).


Turtles and tortoises lay between 2 to 100 leathery eggs (most species lay between 2 to 12 eggs). Turtles travel thousands of miles across the ocean to lay eggs at the same beaches where they were born. Tortoise lays eggs in the areas where they normally reside, in the nest in the vegetation or in the soil. In both cases, eggs are left on their own during 90 to 120 days (until they hatch). Young turtles and tortoises need to fend for themselves from the moment of birth.


Some turtles avoid cold weather and lack of food by hiding in the mud and hibernating until spring. Unlike them, tortoises are able to lower metabolic rate to survive periods of food scarcity and they never hibernate.


Turtles can survive from 20 to 40 years, while tortoises can survive 80 to 150 years in the wild.

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