Turtle vs. tortoise: what’s the difference?


By Emily Bruer

For many people in the world, the term “turtle” encompasses every reptile with a shell on its back, but it’s not quite that simple. While there are many similarities between turtles and tortoises they are actually very different creatures!

Let’s start with the shells.

Both turtles and tortoises have similar shells. These shells are made up of a carapace (the top) and a plastron (the bottom) which are connected on the sides. These two pieces of shell are actually made up of the animal’s ribs and spine, and they keep him protected from predators that would normally prey on slow moving creatures.

As an added bit of protection, turtles and tortoises also have scutes on the top of their carapace. These scutes are made of keratin and are basically like a skin covering the bones of the animal. While some turtles may shed their scutes over time, tortoises do not – theirs just continue to grow as they do!

It’s a common misconception that the shell of a turtle or tortoise is simply that; but, unlike hermit crabs, it is impossible for a turtle or tortoise to live without his shell.

The shell of a turtle or tortoise is a good indicator of its health.

While wild animals’ shells are usually in great condition – unless they have been involved in an accident like a narrow escape from an alligator or a hit and run by a car, those in captivity can experience quite a few more issues.

Shell rot is one of those issues. Found almost exclusively in captive turtles and tortoises this disease is caused by poor husbandry and results in ulcers on the shell. If you notice ulcers on your pet’s shell be sure to get him to a vet immediately as this condition must be treated with antibiotics and if left unchecked can be life threatening!

Pyramiding is another disease, found mostly with captive turtles and tortoises, that causes the shell to grow unevenly into a pyramid shape.

Caused by a poor diet, a lack of certain vitamins, minerals, or sunlight, or too little or too much humidity, this disease can be life threatening if the causes are not discovered and rectified. Unfortunately, once pyramiding has occurred there is no way to reverse it, but you can make changes to the animal’s diet and environment to prevent further incorrect growth.

Now on to the differences!

One of the main differences between turtles and tortoises is that of habitat. Tortoises are terrestrial, while turtles spend the majority of their time in the water.

Another is their anatomy. Most turtles have webbed feet to help them move around in the water with ease, while tortoises have thicker, stockier feet that allow them to carry their heavy bodies and move around on land.

For the most part, turtles have much lighter shells than that of their terrestrial cousin, the tortoise. This is to keep them aerodynamic, help them swim faster, and make it easier on their thinner legs when they come onto land for short amounts of time.

While most tortoises are almost exclusively herbivores due to their slow moving speeds, turtles are omnivores and will eat just about anything they can find from fish, to plants and bugs.

Due to habitat loss, other environmental changes, and the illegal pet trade, many turtles and tortoises have found themselves on the endangered species list.

What exactly is the difference between captive born and captive bred? “Captive born” simply means that the animal was born in captivity; while the animal may have been born in captivity, his mother may have been wild caught while gravid (pregnant).

This is why, if you choose to purchase rather than rescue, you need to make sure every animal we purchase is from a line of animals that has been in captivity for several generations – “captive bred”. While it can be hard to be sure that pet store animals were responsibly sourced, it is very easy to find a local breeder that can help you find the perfect pet. Many cities hold reptile shows where you can meet breeders in the area and see a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians.

Be sure any animal you bring home looks healthy, avoid any animals that have discharge coming from their eyes or nose, or have tiny black dots on their scales, as these can be mites.

The best way to help our reptile friends is by volunteering, fostering or adopting from a local reptile rescue. There are an overwhelming number of unwanted reptiles and amphibians, and many rescues are underfunded and understaffed. If your locality doesn’t have a rescue, be sure to check with your local wildlife center, as they may actually be the rescue for your area!

Always remember to do your research! Whether you simply love admiring turtles and tortoises in the wild or you want to have one as a pet, keep in mind that knowledge is power. You can never know too much about the creatures around you, and if you are considering getting a turtle or a tortoise as a pet, he will thank you for doing your research before bringing him home!


emily-bruer-pawedinEmily Bruer has been penning the adventures of her imagination since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Working at animal shelters for the last five years, she learned an incredible amount about animal care and behavior. She is currently employed at a vet clinic where she continues her animal education. Emily’s love of animals is evident when you step into her home, which she shares with six dogs and six cats, all of whom were rescues.



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