Tortoises and turtles are both reptiles from the order of Testudines, but in different classification families. The major difference between the two is that tortoises dwell on land, while turtles live in the water some or nearly all of the time.

The bodies of tortoises and turtles are both shielded by a shell, the upper part of which is called carapace, with the lower portion called a plastron. The carapace and the plastron are attached by a bridge, which means that though the head and limbs of a turtle or tortoise may be withdrawn from the shell, the whole body can never be totally detached from it. These reptiles are generally reclusive and shy in nature.

Comparison chart

Tortoise versus Turtle comparison chart
Definition A Tortoise is a reptile from the Chelonian family and dwells well on land. A Turtle is a reptile from the Chelonian family and dwells well in the water.
Distribution Found mostly in Asia and Africa but some species exist in Americas too. Africa, America.
Shape of the shell Mostly large dome shaped shells (with bumps on the top in some species). Mostly flat, streamlined shells.
Weight of the shell The shells are heavier. Generally light-weight shell.
Limbs Feet are short and sturdy with bent legs. Webbed feet with long claws.
Diet Most are herbivores, but some species prefer live food. Eats fruits, veggies, leafy vegetation and meat, hence they are omnivores.
Birth Tortoise hatchlings move from their nest to the mothers burrow soon after birth. Turtle hatchlings stay in their nest on their own for 90-120 days.
Lifespan 80-150 years. The longest living Tortoise is 326 years. 20-40 years. The oldest was 86 years.
Kingdom Animalia Animalia
Phylum Chordata Chordata
Class Reptilia Reptilia
Order Testudines (a.k.a., Chelonii) Testudines (a.k.a., Chelonii)
Family Testudinidae Numerous families, including Carettochelyidae (pig-nosed turtle), Dermatemydidae (Central American river turtles), Emydidae (pond/water turtles), etc.

Differences in Habitat

Turtles live some or most of the time in the water, while tortoises live on land. Both turtles and tortoises lay eggs on the ground. The mother will dig a burrow and lay two to twelve eggs there. The future hatchlings will stay inside the egg for 90 to 120 days, incubating on their own. Once the incubation process is complete, they dig their way to the surface. Tortoise mothers provide protection to the hatchlings for about 80 days, after which they survive on their own, but turtle hatchlings are on their own from birth.

Differences in Physical Characteristics

Turtles have flat shells and webbed feet with long claws.
Turtles have flat shells and webbed feet with long claws.

A tortoise has a dome-shaped shell and short and sturdy feet. Its legs are bent instead of being straight and directly under the body. A turtle has a flat, streamlined shell and limbs that are quite similar to a tortoise's, but the turtle's feet are webbed and have long claws which provide a good grip upon floating logs and help the reptile climb onto riverbanks. Some turtles might even have flippers, as is the case for the pig-nosed turtle.

Tortoise vs. Turtle Shell

A tortoise shell is shaped like a dome.
A tortoise shell is shaped like a dome.

The shells that cover the body of these reptiles are very important as they give researchers a fair idea of how these reptiles live. As turtles generally prefer to live in water, the shell of a turtle is flat and streamlined to aid in swimming and diving, while the shell of a tortoise, which lives on land, is rather large and dome-shaped to provide protection from predators. Also, the shell of a tortoise is quite heavy when compared to a turtle's shell, which is lighter to avoid sinking and to increase swimming speed.

Differences in Diet

Most land-based tortoises are herbivores while turtles can be both herbivores and carnivores. This is a video of a turtle eating a pigeon.

Reproduction of Turtles vs. Tortoises

The eggs from a turtle are somewhat soft and leather-like, similar to the eggs produced by other reptiles. Turtle hatchlings stay in their nest on their own for 90-120 days.

Female tortoises dig burrows in which they lay anywhere from 2 to 12 eggs. Hatchlings take approximately 90-120 days to incubate within the ping-pong-ball sized eggs.

Difference in Lifespan

Tortoises can live about as long as humans, around 60-80 years, but some have been known to live for over 150 years. The longest verified tortoise life span was 188 years.

In contrast, the common lifespan of a turtle is about 20-40 years, while sea turtles average 60 to 70 years, with about 40 to 50 years of that required to reach maturity.

While it is sometimes reported that tortoises have lived for over 200 years in captivity, confirming the validity of these claims has been difficult. Most tortoises can live over 100 years in captivity, but living beyond that age requires carefully controlled, nurturing environments.

As Pets

Both are kept as pets, though small turtles are more commonly owned. Tortoises are actually easier to care for, but more expensive to own. Both require owners who are willing and able to keep a very long commitment. As such, neither is recommended as a pet in many cases.

Geographical Distribution

Tortoises are found mostly in Asia and Africa, while turtles are found in Africa and America. Turtles are primarily found in tropical and semi-tropical climates, similar to those preferred by most lizards, as they require warmer external temperatures to maintain proper body warmth. However, some turtles are known for hibernating during colder weather, usually alongside riverbanks. Tortoises are not known for hibernating, as their habitats are almost entirely warm, though some species can greatly limit their metabolism during periods of little or no food and water.


Share this comparison:

If you read this far, you should follow us:

"Turtle vs Tortoise." Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 18 Jul 2019. < >