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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.

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)

Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether a turtle is in fact a turtle, or, if it’s actually a tortoise. 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.

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

​​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 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)

turtles 101

Turtles are reptiles of the scientific order Testudines which is also sometimes known as Chelonii. The term Chelonii 
comes from Greek word Chelone, meaning: home on back and are characterized by a special bony or cartilaginous
shell developed from their ribs and acting as a shield. The term  turtle may refer to the chelonian order as a whole
(American English) or to fresh-water and sea-dwelling chelonians (British English).

​The meaning of the word turtle differs from region to region. In North America, all chelonians are commonly called
turtles, including terrapins and tortoises.  In Great Britain, the word turtle is used for sea-dwelling species, but not for tortoises.   In America, the Box turtle is called a Box turtle, but in Europe, they are referred to as Box Tortoises.

The term tortoise usually refers to any land-dwelling, non-swimming chelonian.  Most land-dwelling chelonians are in the Testudinidae family which is only one of the 14 extant turtle families.

Terrapin is generally used to describe several species of small, edible, hard-shell turtles, typically those found in brackish waters, and is an Algonquian word for turtle. 

The classification of turtles can be split up into two separate groups, Cryptodira and Pleurodira; respectively speaking, those having necks that move vertically and those that move side to side. Ten turtle families fall into the Cryptodira groups while just two families live in the Pleurodira.  See the Complete Taxonomy List for a complete breakdown of scientific and common names of families and species along with pictures and native ranges.