The difference between Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins

By Doug Williams
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The difference between Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins

Doug Williams
 
Chelonian
Chelonian
 
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There are distinct differences between tortoises, turtles, and terrapins. They are all similar, in that they are reptiles that have a shell. To be able to tell the differences between them, it will help to analyze the similarities first. As reptiles, they all lay eggs and are ectothermic (cold-blooded). This means they need an outside source of heat, such as the sun, to regulate their body temperature.

The Greek word for the tortoise is Chelonia, and turtles, terrapins, and tortoises belong to the taxonomic order with this name. Ecologists often refer to them as chelonians. Their shells consist of fused bone incorporating the rib cage and the spinal chord. What defines the three different species is their habitat.

Turtles

Turtle in the deep ocean
Turtle in the deep ocean

Turtles live predominantly in the water. Sea turtles rarely come out of the water, and even then only females do this. They only emerge when they lay eggs on the shore. Turtles live in any body of water including oceans, lakes, rivers or even ponds. They very rarely emerge but occasionally will be seen basking in the sun on rocks and logs close to the water. They sometimes burrow in the mud to go through torpor to wait for warmer weather. Turtles eat jellyfish, other small fish, and insects. Three common species of turtle include box turtles, green sea turtles, and alligator snapping turtles.

Tortoises

Old tortoises in the grass
Old tortoises in the grass

Tortoises are different from turtles in that they live on land all the time. Instead of webbed feet, they have stumpy feet for walking. They dig in the ground with the use of long claws. They are herbivores, eating mainly small shrubbery, grass, and other plants.

When it is very hot tortoises dig into the cooler ground to escape the searing heat. Tortoises can completely retract their heads into their shells, where turtles and terrapins cannot. Common types of tortoise are leopard tortoises, desert tortoises, and Egyptian tortoises.

Terrapins

Terrapins sunbathing in the backyard
Terrapins sunbathing in the backyard

Then there are the terrapins, which are often called diamondbacks, named after the shape of the angular rings on their shells. Terrapins are equally at home in water and on land. They live along river banks, near ponds and swamps. Terrapins are good swimmers, but they do not have webbed feet. They also have a hard shell, and the word terrapin is from the Algonquin name for the turtle. They are carnivorous, and they eat clams, shrimp, crabs, mussels, and snails.

In the United States, there are seven subspecies of terrapin which are: Carolina, Tequesta, mangrove, Ornate, Mississippi, Northern and Texas terrapins.

Green turtle swimming over coral reefs in Kona – Author: Brocken Inaglory – CC BY-SA 3.0
Green turtle swimming over coral reefs in Kona – Author: Brocken Inaglory – CC BY-SA 3.0

All three of these chelonians are at risk. It is estimated that about half of the chelonian population is under threat because of the degradation of their habitat and the fact that they are hunted.

They are also in danger because of climate change and environmental pollution.

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