Difference Between Turtles, Tortoises & Terrapins

Despite their significant differences, so many people will confuse turtles, tortoises and terrapins.

Of course, these creatures do have their similarities, which is why so many people struggle to tell them apart.

So, if you’re wondering ‘what actually is the difference between them all?’ This article will discuss what separates these creatures, what they have in common and how to tell them apart.

Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about these fascinating creatures!

What are the similarities between turtles, tortoises & terrapins?

As many wildlife enthusiasts may find frustrating, the average person often tends to confuse turtles, tortoises and terrapins due to their similar appearance.

While these animals actually have quite a lot of differences, we should start off by stating that turtles, tortoises and terrapins are actually all members of the same reptile family: the Chelonian family.

So, when people confuse them, they’re not as far off the mark as you might think. They also all look relatively similar; they’re all a green/ brown color with hard shells and four limbs that sit pointing outwards from their shell.

They all lay eggs, although not very many. All three creatures will produce one or two eggs per year which are technically edible, but it’s not recommended you eat them as they are likely to give you salmonella and/ or metal poisoning.

Terrapins are extremely similar to turtles, because they are actually a small type of turtle.  The name ‘terrapin’ originates from a North American dialect at a time during the colonial era in the U.S. that made its way back to the U.K.

Terrapins live in brackish water (areas where fresh water meets salt water), lakes and streams rather than oceans and seas like regular turtles.

So, for the purposes of avoiding too much confusion, from this point on in the article, we will group terrapins with turtles, and compare them with tortoises.

What’s the difference between turtles & terrapins?

While they are members of the same family, they are still not genetically close enough to interbreed, despite being genetically related.

The most obvious difference between the two species is that turtles are omnivores that live in the sea and tortoises are herbivores that live on land.

Let’s take a look at the main differences between the two creatures’ habitats and feeding habits:

Tortoise Habitat

Tortoises live all over the world as they are capable of surviving in a multitude of environments including forests, deserts and more. Most tortoises tend to live in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas and lots of other warm climates.

You won’t find tortoises in places like Antarctica because these places are far too cold for reptiles to survive as they rely on external heat sources to heat their bodies.

The only time you will see a tortoise in a body of water is when it is bathing or after something to drink. You will never see a tortoise in deep water, far from land because they don’t have the ability to swim so would drown.

Tortoises actually descended from turtles, some semi-aquatic turtles felt they preferred it on land and decided to stay. Over time, they evolved and eventually lost their ability to swim.

Turtle Habitat

Turtles are either aquatic or semi-aquatic. You will find them in places like Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

Aquatic turtles will spend almost their entire lives in water, only to set foot on land to lay eggs once or twice a year. So, if you’re in the ocean, and you see an animal that looks like a tortoise or a turtle, and you aren’t sure, it will most definitely be a turtle.

Semi-aquatic ones, as the name suggests, will spend some time in water and some time on land. An example of one of these turtles is the Box Turtle. Native to North America, these turtles tend to live in ponds some of the time and on land other times.

That being said, even semi-aquatic turtles won’t last very long on land, they will have to go back to the water after a time, so you will never find a turtle in places that are far from any source of water, such as the desert.

This type of turtle would be tricky for an untrained eye to distinguish between a turtle and a tortoise. This type of turtle is often also referred to as a terrapin, which confuses things further!

Tortoise Diet

Tortoises are herbivores, meaning they exclusively eat plants to survive. When living in the wild they will eat the various plants that grow around them.

For example, a tortoise living in the desert may eat lots of cactus plants and a tortoise living in the forest will eat lots of various berries.

Turtle Diet

Most turtles are omnivores, meaning they consume a combination of plant-based and animal-based foods.

There are a few exceptions to the rule. For example, softshell turtles tend to eat a diet of only meat.

So, if you come across a creature that could be either a tortoise or a turtle in your eyes, see if they’re eating anything as this will certainly help you determine the species. If they are eating insects or fish etc. you can be pretty confident that it is a turtle.

Final Say

Don’t feel bad if you are one of the many people out there that until reading this article, you had no idea what the difference was between turtles, tortoises and terrapins – it’s not super easy to tell at first glance.

The best thing to do when you come across one of these special creatures, is to leave it in peace most importantly, waking a hibernating turtle or tortoise can put them at risk of premature death due to freezing.

If you want to determine what creature it is, take into consideration where you are. If you’re in the middle of the ocean, you know it’s going to be a turtle. If you’re in the desert, chances are it’s a tortoise. It’s as simple as that!