Tortoise vs Aquatic Turtles – What are the Differences?

As a reptile enthusiast, I’ve always been fascinated by the vast world of shelled reptiles, primarily tortoises and aquatic turtles. These fascinating creatures might seem similar at first glance, but they have distinct differences that set them apart.

tortoise vs aquatic turtles

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In this article, I’ll take you on a journey to explore the key distinctions between tortoises and aquatic turtles, sharing my personal experiences and insights along the way. So let’s dive right in and discover what truly sets these captivating creatures apart!

Turtle and Tortoise Comparison Chart

Before diving into the differences between tortoises and aquatic turtles, let’s start by examining their basic characteristics side-by-side:

Characteristic Tortoise Aquatic Turtle
Picture box turtle red eared slider
Habitat Terrestrial (land-based) Aquatic or semi-aquatic
Shell Shape Dome-shaped Flatter and more streamlined
Limbs Stumpy, elephant-like legs with thick scales Webbed feet or long claws
Diet Primarily herbivorous (plant-based) Omnivorous (plants and small animals)
Lifespan Generally longer (up to 150 years) Shorter (25 to 50 years)
Nesting Behavior Typically dig burrows or nest under vegetation Nest near water bodies, some lay eggs on land

Before we get into more details about the similarities and differences, here are some key things you should know about turtles, tortoise, terrapins and sea turtles:

  • Turtles: Reptiles with hard shells that inhabit various environments, including aquatic, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems.
  • Tortoises: Land-dwelling turtles with high-domed shells and sturdy legs, primarily herbivorous and known for their long lifespan.
  • Terrapins: Semi-aquatic turtles living in brackish water and swamps, often distinguished by their webbed feet and ability to thrive in fresh and saltwater habitats.
  • Sea Turtles: Marine reptiles with streamlined shells and flippers for navigating the ocean, playing a vital role in marine ecosystems and known for their lengthy migrations.

Now that you have an overview of the main characteristics of both tortoises and turtles, let’s delve deeper into each of these fascinating aspects to further understand their differences.


Differences in Habitat

One of the most apparent differences between tortoises and aquatic turtles is their preferred habitats. As a tortoise owner, I’ve spent considerable time understanding their terrestrial lifestyle.

Tortoises are land-dwelling creatures and can be found in various environments such as deserts, grasslands, and forests. They generally avoid wet or damp areas for extended periods since excess moisture can cause health issues. Tortoises also require a dry and warm environment for proper thermoregulation—basking under the sun to maintain their body temperature is essential.

On the other hand, aquatic turtles are adapted to life in water or its vicinity. Some species, like red-eared sliders and painted turtles, spend a significant amount of time in water and come ashore mainly for basking or nesting.

Other species, such as box turtles, are considered semi-aquatic and tend to occupy moist environments with access to both water and land. As an aquatic turtle keeper, I’ve seen firsthand how important it is to provide them with a suitable water source to swim and submerge, ensuring their overall well-being.

aquatic turtles

Differences in Physical Characteristics

Tortoises and aquatic turtles also have unique physical traits that reflect their respective lifestyles. As someone who has studied these creatures up close, I am always amazed by their incredible adaptations.

Shell Shape

Tortoises typically possess a dome-shaped shell that offers protection from predators, as well as provides support for their hefty weight. The higher, rounded shell shape makes it difficult for potential threats to reach their vulnerable areas.

In contrast, aquatic turtles have flatter, more streamlined shells that shape their body for efficient swimming. Their shell design allows them to glide effortlessly through the water and quickly escape danger.


Tortoises and aquatic turtles both shed their shells but in different ways. Tortoises usually shed individual scutes—the bony plates that comprise their shell. They do this to accommodate growth and replace damaged scutes.

Aquatic turtles generally shed their scutes in a single layer, like peeling off a layer of skin. This process helps them maintain a smooth, streamlined shell and prevents the buildup of algae or debris, which could inhibit their ability to swim efficiently.

tortoise vs turtle

Feet and Leg Shape

Tortoises have stumpy, elephant-like legs covered in thick scales, which support their heavy bodies and allow for efficient walking on land. Their feet have short, blunt claws that aid in digging and gripping the terrain.

Aquatic turtles, on the other hand, have slender legs with either webbed feet or long, sharp claws depending on the species. These features enable them to swim quickly and efficiently, push off the ground during basking, or cling to underwater vegetation.

Swimming Ability

Due to their body structure and limb adaptations, tortoises are not strong swimmers and can even drown if submerged in water for a long time. Conversely, aquatic turtles are powerful swimmers, using their webbed feet or long claws to swiftly propel themselves through water. The shape of their shells and limbs further adds to their swimming prowess.

tortoise eat lettuce

Differences in Diet

Another intriguing aspect of these shelled reptiles is their distinct dietary habits. As someone who has fed both tortoises and aquatic turtles, I can share valuable insights on their diverse nutritional needs.

Tortoises are primarily herbivorous, meaning their diet consists mainly of plant matter. They feed on a variety of grasses, leaves, flowers, fruits, and occasionally succulents. Some tortoise species may also consume small amounts of animal matter, such as insects, but a predominantly plant-based diet is essential for their health.

Overconsumption of proteins can lead to health issues like shell deformities, organ failure, and reduced lifespan. I always ensure my tortoises enjoy a well-balanced, fiber-rich diet to maintain their long-term health.

Aquatic turtles, on the other hand, are generally omnivorous. Their diet includes a mix of plant and animal matter. Along with aquatic plants, they also consume insects, fish, snails, and other small creatures.

Some species, like the red-eared slider, are primarily carnivorous when they are young but become increasingly herbivorous as they grow older. To keep my aquatic turtles healthy, I provide a balanced diet of fish, shrimp, insects, and vegetables.

Understanding the nutritional needs of these fascinating creatures is crucial to ensure their wellbeing and prevent potential health issues in the long run.

snapping turtle laying eggs

Difference in Reproduction

Reproductive behaviors and habits are yet another area where tortoises and aquatic turtles differ. Having observed both kinds of shelled reptiles, I continue to be fascinated by their unique approaches to procreation and raising young.

Tortoises exhibit a wide range of courting and mating behaviors, which generally involve the male ramming, biting, or vocalizing to the female. After successful mating, the female tortoise starts the nesting process by digging a hole to lay her eggs.

Depending on the species, some tortoises might lay their eggs in burrows or under vegetation. Once the eggs are laid and covered with soil, the female tortoise leaves, and the hatchlings are left to fend for themselves once they emerge.

Aquatic turtles, like tortoises, display various courtship behaviors that often involve the male brushing his long claws on the female’s head or performing swimming displays. After mating, the female aquatic turtle looks for a suitable nesting site close to or within the vicinity of the water source.

Many aquatic turtle species prefer sandy or soft soil to dig a shallow hole, where they lay their eggs. Eggs are then covered and left to incubate. Just like tortoises, the mother aquatic turtle does not provide parental care to the offspring, which are left to survive on their own.

Although both tortoises and aquatic turtles exhibit similar reproductive habits—such as laying eggs on land—there are subtle differences when it comes to nesting locations and courtship behaviors. This aspect further highlights the incredible diversity of these reptiles and how they have adapted to their respective environments.

hermanns tortoise

Difference in Lifespan

Tortoises and aquatic turtles display varying lifespans across different species, which is another distinguishing factor between these two fascinating groups of reptiles. As someone who has cared for both, understanding their lifespans is crucial when committing to these long-lived pets.

Tortoises are known for their extraordinary longevity, with some species living well over a century. The Aldabra giant tortoise and Galapagos tortoise, for example, can live up to 150 years or more.

Smaller species, such as the Russian tortoise or Hermann’s tortoise, can still reach impressive ages of 50-100 years. It is essential for prospective tortoise owners to be prepared for a lifelong commitment, ensuring proper care for these ancient creatures.

Aquatic turtles, on the other hand, generally have shorter lifespans compared to tortoises. Depending on the species, some can live between 25-50 years, while others may surpass this age range with exceptional care.

Red-eared sliders, for instance, can live up to 30 years or more, while painted turtles may reach 25-45 years. Owning an aquatic turtle also requires dedication, as these creatures depend on their caregivers to provide the appropriate habitat, food, and care throughout their lives.

While both tortoises and aquatic turtles are long-lived animals, it’s important to be aware of the specific lifespans and needs of the species you plan to keep. This awareness can ensure that you’re providing the best possible care and allowing these stunning reptiles to thrive under your care.


In summary, while tortoises and aquatic turtles share some similarities as shelled reptiles, they exhibit significant differences in their habitats, physical characteristics, diets, reproductive behaviors, and lifespans.

Each group of these amazing creatures has unique adaptations suited to their respective environments, showcasing the incredible diversity and resilience of nature. As a reptile enthusiast, I hope you’ve found this article informative and enlightening, sparking a deeper appreciation for the enchanting world of tortoises and aquatic turtles.

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