Turtle vs. Tortoise: What's the Difference?

Ever wondered about the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? Here’s a look at some of the differences between these similarly-shelled creatures.

Mar 27, 2023By Lauren Rey
turtle vs tortoise whats the difference

Turtles and tortoises are two of the most confused creatures in the animal kingdom. Both slow-moving shelled reptiles with a love of sunshine! While they look very similar from afar, turtles and tortoises are not the same. Here’s a look at some of their differences!

Differences Between Turtles and Tortoises

turtle vs tortoise

There’s an adage that all tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. This is derived from the fact that both turtles and tortoises are of the chelonian order, or simply shelled reptiles. While the terms “turtle” and “tortoise” are often used interchangeably, they are very different creatures.

There are approximately 356 species of turtles and 49 species of tortoises living in a variety of environments around the world, from oceans and lakes to forests and deserts. While they may have similar features, there are plenty of notable differences from how they look to where they live and what they eat!

Differences in Appearance Between Turtles and Tortoises

tortoise feet

There are several physical characteristics that differentiate turtles from tortoises. Tortoises have taller, more rounded shells like a dome, whereas turtles typically have smoother, flatter, and thinner shells. This is to aid turtles in their movement through the water.

Turtles swim, tortoises do not! This is important to know because many well-meaning people have tried to “return” a tortoise to the water with detrimental consequences. Tortoises are strictly land-dwelling creatures. They will enter the water’s edge to bathe or drink, but they are not swimmers.

turtle feet

Because tortoises are not swimmers, the second main physical characteristic you’ll notice between turtles and tortoises is their limbs. Tortoises have more rounded feet, often compared to that of an elephant. Turtles have more webbed, flipper-like feet for swimming. While it can be hard to see a turtle's feet while they are in the water, if they are swimming, you are almost certainly looking at a turtle!

Distribution and Habitat of Turtles and Tortoises


Turtles and Tortoises are found throughout the world on every continent except Antarctica. They inhabit a variety of environments but are more concentrated in areas with warmer climates.

Freshwater turtles can be found in various lakes, ponds, and wetlands. They spend most of their time in the water but come on land to rest, sunbathe, and lay eggs. They can also commonly be spotted on rocks or logs protruding from the water with their necks and limbs outstretched as they bask in the sun.

Saltwater turtles, better known as sea turtles, are found throughout the earth’s oceans but mostly in warm tropical waters. Sea turtles spend their entire lives in the ocean, only coming ashore to lay eggs every 2 to 5 years.

Tortoises inhabit deserts, grasslands, scrubs, and forests. They spend their entire lives on land, often in burrows or under rocks and shrubs. Like turtles, they too can be spotted basking in the sun with outstretched limbs but do so on land.

Diet of Turtles and Tortoises

tortoise diet

Tortoises are strictly herbivores and eat a wide variety of grasses, fruits, flowers, and vegetables. Turtles, on the other hand, are omnivores and will eat plants and animals. Turtles–both freshwater and saltwater, will eat algae, aquatic plants, fish, crustaceans, and invertebrates.

Unfortunately, both fresh and saltwater turtles, are very susceptible to pollution from contaminated oceans and waterways, as well as plastic debris. Every year countless turtles are killed by oils, chemicals, and other pollutants that enter our waterways and plastic that they become entangled in or mistake for food.

Types of Turtles and Tortoises

swamp turtle

There are many different species and subspecies of turtles and tortoises. While there are hundreds of freshwater turtles, some of the most common include–sliders, box turtles, softshell turtles, spotted turtles, and snapping turtles. These are very prominent throughout rivers, lakes, ponds, and other wetlands in tropical and subtropical areas of every continent except Antarctica. The Southeastern US, Amazon Basin in South America, and Southeast Asia have the most diversity of freshwater turtle species.

sea turtle

Seven species of sea turtles are found throughout the world’s oceans, mostly in tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. While sea turtles are migratory, the highest concentrations are usually around the Pacific and Caribbean Islands.

While sea turtles come ashore to nest in many countries, there are a few beaches around the world considered critical nesting locations. These include the coastlines of Florida and Hawaii in the United States, Tortuguero in Costa Rica, and Raine Island off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Great care is taken to protect these sites and keep nesting sea turtles, their eggs, and hatchlings safe. Sadly, most sea turtle species are considered threatened or endangered. Primarily due to pollution, poaching, and fishing line entanglements.


There are 49 known species of tortoises around the world. Among these tortoises, the most common include the Sulcata tortoise, Greek tortoise, Russian tortoise, Egyptian tortoise, and a red-footed tortoise. Although not as common, the Galapagos giant tortoise is one of the most well-known and beloved tortoises worldwide.

An icon of the Galapagos Islands, this giant tortoise has been the subject of much scientific research going back to famed biologist Charles Darwin. Since then, Galapagos giant tortoises have become a symbol of evolutionary education and conservation efforts. As the largest of all tortoise species, these famous tortoises can weigh hundreds of pounds and live over 150 years!

Lauren Rey
By Lauren Rey

A lover of all animals, Lauren’s background is in the veterinary world, but she is now a content writer on travel, wildlife, and all things pets! She’s based in Florida, but when not writing, she’s usually plotting out a new road trip route with her partner-in-crime. Pickles is a mixed-breed rescue dog that loves hiking, road trips, and Starbucks just as much as her mom does!