What's The Difference: Turtle Vs. Tortoise

Turtles and tortoises are some of the slowpokes of the animal kingdom. That’s why their shells are so important. They can’t outrun predators and other threats, so they retreat into their shells instead.

Is this a turtle or a tortoise? Learn the differences between these shelled animals. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Both turtles and tortoises have shells, and their shells are their most recognizable feature. If you see an animal with a shell, you know it’s either a turtle or a tortoise. But how do you know which one it is?


If you see a shelled animal in the wild here in Illinois, you can be certain it’s a turtle. That’s because no tortoises live in Illinois. In fact, only a few of the 49 tortoise species in the world live in the United States, but they mostly live in dry, desert habitats. Compare that to turtles. There are more than 250 kinds of turtles in the world, and 17 live right here in Illinois.


If you only see a shelled animal in a picture or on TV or the internet, there’s a few things to look for to tell whether it is a turtle or a tortoise.


First, check out the shell. Tortoises usually have large, dome-shaped shells. Turtles, though, have flatter, more streamlined shells. Their legs and feet also look different. Tortoises have legs that look like an elephant’s legs, only much smaller, obviously. Turtles have smaller legs, and most turtles have webbed feet that help them swim.


Turtles and tortoises also live in different habitats. Turtles are aquatic animals that spend most of their time in water. We do see turtles out of the water, though. On sunny days, they often come out of the water to sun themselves on rocks, tree limbs or the ground. Turtles also lay their eggs on land. However, tortoises spend almost all their time on land. They only rarely enter the water.


Turtles and tortoises both belong to the testudines order of animals. One other animal belongs to this group: terrapins. You might not be familiar with terrapins, but they are also very similar to turtles. They also have shells and walk in that same, slow way.


Terrapins are kind of like a middle ground between turtles and tortoises. Technically, terrapins are turtles, but they spend less time in the water than true turtles do. Terrapins spend equal amounts of time on land and in the water. None of the turtles we see here in northern Illinois are really terrapins. That’s because terrapins live in brackish water, which is a mixture of freshwater and saltwater. That means terrapins live in coastal areas, near oceans and bays.

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