Turtles and Tortoises – know the difference

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If you don't know the difference between a tortoise and a turtle, you are not alone. There is often confusion between these hard shelled reptiles and you wouldn't be far wrong if you identified them incorrectly.

Both of these reptiles are classified in the order of Chelonii (turtles), but there are some major differences between the two. Let's see what these are.

It's in the shell

The two reclusive creatures are closely related in that both their bodies are shielded by an upper carapace and a lower plastron attached by a bridge. Although they can withdraw their limbs and head from this shell, they cannot detach their whole body from it. Some species of turtle shed their shell as they grow out of it but there is always a new one underneath.


Both turtles and tortoises occur in Africa and America, but tortoises are found in Asia too.

Any turtle-like creature that you see walking about on land during your South African safari is a tortoise. Turtles hardly ever venture out of the water unless it is to lay their eggs in the sand, while tortoises avoid water except when they are drinking it.


Their different habitats have resulted in rather a different design in these animals. Tortoises have large, heavy, dome-shaped shells and sturdy elephant-like legs for walking around (albeit slowly) among their many habitats, from deserts to rain forests – they are adaptable that way.

On the other hand, turtles have webbed feet with long claws and light-weight flat, streamlined shells for swimming in ponds, streams and the ocean.

Turtles are omnivorous and will eat almost anything, but tortoises prefer the vegetarian option.

Parenting tactics

Both tortoises and turtles dig a shallow, sandy nest to bury their eggs in. While baby tortoises move in with mum shortly after hatching, turtle youngsters stay in their nest for up to 120 days.


Slow as they may be, tortoises are the winners when it comes to longevity. The oldest recorded tortoise was 326 years old, but they usually live for 80 to 150 years – making them a problematic choice as a pet. Turtles are lucky to make 40, although the record-holder reached the ripe old age of 86.


While they may have their differences, turtles and tortoises face the same problems when it comes to survival. Habitat loss, predation, injury (usually caused by motor vehicles) and the illegal pet trade are the major threats to these animals.

So basically, if it's walking, it's a tortoise.


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Saturday, 15 December 2018