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Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether a tortoise is in fact a tortoise, or, if it’s actually a turtle. Both of these separate animal families share many very similar physical characteristics, and only a few traits that differentiate the two. There are of course wild card species that go against what in theory they should look like based what others in their family look like. It gets even harder to distinguish between individual species within the family as there might only be very subtle differences.

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There are about 49 species of tortoises, and they range in size from the padlopers (Homopus) of southern Africa, with shell lengths of 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 inches), to the giant tortoises (Geochelone) of the Aldabra and Galapagos islands. The Galapagos Tortoise can grow to about 1.5 metres (4.9 feet). The Aldabran can weigh up to 300 kgs (660 lbs). Most tortoises are vegetarians and eat foliage, flowers, and fruits; some tortoise species from moist forest habitats are more opportunistic and consume animal matter.


The tortoise is the third member of the Chelonian family – along with turtles and terrapins. Tortoises
are a member of the family Testudinidae which contains approximately 16 genera and 40-50 species,
depending on the source. Tortoises are exclusively terrestrial and are found in North and South
America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and on the islands of Madagascar, the Galapagos, and the Aldabra
Atoll. They inhabit warm areas ranging from rain forests to deserts. The tortoise is closely related to
the tortoise's marine cousin, the sea turtle and are found most particularly in the southern hemisphere where the weather is warmer for most of the year. Most species of tortoise are diurnal (active mainly during the day) but in places where it is very hot throughout the day, tortoises will often venture out to find food in the cooler dawn and dusk periods. Most species of tortoise, but not all, hibernate during the colder winter months particularly those species of tortoise in the Northern Hemisphere. Tortoises must have an empty stomach before they hibernate and therefore tend to go through a period of starvation beforehand. Tortoises come out of hibernation when the weather begins to get warmer again.

Tortoises generally have lifespans comparable with those of human beings, and some individuals are known to have lived longer than 150 years. Because of this, they symbolize longevity in some cultures, such as China.

Formerly, the term tortoise was used to refer to any terrestrial turtle. The testudinids are easily recognized because all share a unique hind-limb anatomy made up of elephantine (or cylindrical) hind limbs and hind feet; each digit in their forefeet and hind feet contains two or fewer phalanges. With the exception of the pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri), the shell is high domed. Shells of some species are nearly spherical with a flattened base.

In general, the best way to determine if it’s a turtle or a tortoise is to know a few rules that apply to the majority of their respective families. Turtles need water to survive. When we say water, we mean they need water for more than just drinking; turtles are aquatic or semi-aquatic. This means that turtles live in and out of water. The exceptions are the box turtles, who have thicker skin that retains water like tortoises. Tortoises are terrestrial animals, meaning they live on land and don’t require water (aside from drinking) to survive. The exception to this is the Hingeback tortoise who needs a high humidity environment to survive.

Tortoise Characteristics

Again, there are a few exceptions but the following are the traits that describe the characteristics that most tortoises will have and turtles will not. (For example, a couple of exceptions are: Hingebacks need water and Pancake tortoises have a flat like shell)

  • Live exclusively on land
  • Have thicker skin that helps retain water
  • Feet have toenails more so than claws
  • Tend to have higher pitched shells

Turtle Characteristics
Not every turtle will fit this description but the main characteristics that show that a chelonian is a turtle and not a tortoise include the following: (Some exceptions include the many number of box turtle species)

  • Live in and out of water
  • Feet have claws more so than toenails
  • Usually have webbed like feet or flippers
  • Tend to have lower pitched shells
  • Might lack a plastron
  • Might lack scutes (soft shelled)