What’s the Difference Between Turtles & Tortoises?

Have you ever wondered, “What’s the difference between turtles and tortoises?” If so, you’re not alone. Many people confuse turtles and tortoises because these two types of reptiles are very similar in overall physical appearance.

However, when it comes down to it, turtles and tortoises are very different animals and have very different care requirements when kept as pets.

In this article, we’ll delve into the similarities and differences between turtles and tortoises. In our opinion, both make excellent pets, but you’ll want to know if a turtle or tortoise is better suited to your needs before you adopt one.

turtles vs tortoises
This hatchling common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is a turtle species that spends nearly all of its time in the water.

What’s the Difference Between Turtles and Tortoises?

Physical Traits

Upon first glance, turtles and tortoises appear very much the same, mainly because they both have hard shells that allow their body to retreat inside of it. However, when you examine both reptiles closer, you’ll see that their physical characteristics are actually slightly different to reflect their different life styles.

The shells of tortoises tend to be dome-shaped and weigh a fair amount. The shape helps to ward off potential predators. On the other hand, turtle shells are usually flat, smooth, and overall fairly light-weight in proportion to the animal. This is to keep the animal stream-lined for an aquatic or semi-aquatic life style.

A tortoise’s legs are chunky, sturdy and stay bent at the “knee” area to promote walking on land. Conversely, turtles’ legs tend to come straight out from underneath their bodies to support swimming and a more aquatic life style.

peninsula cooter turtle
This Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys peninsularis) turtle has a flat shell, webbed feet, and claws which suit it to an aquatic life style.

Turtles also have claws or toe nails on their webbed feet, which tortoises tend to lack. And if a tortoise does have toe nails, the nails themselves are worn down and not sharp due to the fact that they spend a lot of time walking on dry land. Some turtles have even adapted to have flippers instead of feet. This is generally only true if the turtle species in question is truly aquatic (i.e. a sea turtle).


We’ve already hinted at what is probably the biggest different between turtles and tortoises – their habitats. Turtles tend to live fully aquatic or semi-aquatic lives, whereas tortoises live on land.

While there are some turtles that prefer life on land such as box turtles and there are also some turtles that live in the water nearly 100 percent of the time, such as sea turtles, most turtles will split their time between both land and water.

sri lankan star tortoise hatchling
This Sri Lankan Star Tortoise hatchling (Geochelone elegans) has a dome-shaped shell to protect it from predators on land.

When you create a turtle habitat in captivity, you need to do your research and make sure that you are setting up the proper habitat to support your turtle’s life style. Some need a dry home with a water dish, whereas others will need a tank filled with water with a platform to emerge from the water to bask. It really does depend entirely on the species you choose to keep as a pet.

Turtles vs. Tortoises: Diet and Food

Most tortoises are vegetarian herbivores, but turtles can be carnivores or omnivores. Just like with habitat requirements, dietary requirements vary from turtle species to turtle species because they consume a wide variety of food.

Pet tortoises need to have leafy greens and veggies as their main diet. We give ours kale, collard greens, spinach, and root veggies like carrots. Occasional fruit can be given as treats too. And we should mention that commercial tortoise pellets are also a great option if you worry about your tortoise receiving a fully balanced diet.

adult ornate box turtle
This is an adult Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata). Although it is a turtle, it is a species that is primarily terrestrial.

Feeding a pet turtle is actually really easy. Aquatic turtles tend to like turtle pellets. We supplement pellets with crickets, roaches, and meal worms too. And it’s wise to leave some vegetable matter in the enclosure too so that your turtle has access to it if it chooses.


Both turtles and tortoises lay eggs. Both species dig a hole, lay their eggs, and then cover the eggs. The eggs will incubate for a time and then the hatchlings will dig their way out of the dirt or sand.

The main difference between turtle and tortoise reproduction is in incubation times, which vary from species to species, and in upbringing methods. Turtle hatchlings are essentially on their own from the time they emerge from the egg. Tortoise hatchlings, on the other hand, have some degree of protection from their mother. Some tortoise species will guard their nest, while others simply stick around and babysit the hatchlings for some time.


Ultimately, turtles and tortoises are very similar in build and physical appearance and we would recommend either reptile to anyone interested in a  relatively low maintenance pet.

If you are debating between a pet tortoise or a pet turtle, we recommend going with a tortoise if you want a land-dwelling animal and a turtle if you want to provide an aquatic habitat.

The Best Pet Tortoises

Have you ever wondered which species of tortoise makes the best pet? Tortoises are big sellers here at Backwater Reptiles. They make excellent starter pet reptiles and many people like to get them for their children. They’re also fun for lots of people because they can live outside, are easy to feed, and have very long life spans.

This blog entry is going to focus on our top three most popular pet tortoises. We’ll discuss what makes each tortoise different from the others and provide care information so that potential new tortoise parents can make educated and informed decisions about which type of tortoise would be best for their household.

best pet tortoises
A group of young pet tortoises housed communally. They’re chowing down in a little “feeding circle.”

Sulcata Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)

Number three on our list of the best pet tortoises is the Sulcata (aka the African Spurred Tortoise, the Spurred Tortoise, and the African Spur Thigh Tortoise), which is probably the tortoise species that is bred the most in the U.S. and thus the most readily available as far as captive bred hatchlings are concerned. This means that not only are they generally affordably priced, but also some of the healthiest due to the refined techniques of captive breeding. It is against the law to import Sulcatas into the U.S., so you know that every one available within the country is captive bred.

sulcata tortoise pet
Here’s one of our captive bred hatchling Sulcata tortoises–one of the best pet tortoises in the world.

Like most tortoise species, Sulcatas can live outdoors. They get along with one another provided multiple adult males don’t occupy the same habitat (bullying can ensue if multiple males are kept together). Keep in mind that Sulcatas can and will burrow, so make sure that your yard has a fenced perimeter both above ground and below ground if you want make sure your tortoise doesn’t go for a leisurely stroll outside your yard. If you plan to utilize the outdoor tortoise enclosure method, it’s also best if you live in a climate that doesn’t experience harsh temperature extremes.

baby pet tortoise

It’s estimated that Sulcatas live in the range of about seventy years. Hatchlings start off about one and half to two inches long and will grow into adults that weigh anywhere from seventy to 200 pounds (males).

adult sulcata tortoise

Sulcatas are grazers and will eat grasses around your backyard. However, you should also be feeding them leafy green veggies and “salads” – the store bought grocery mixed greens that include kale, spinach, collards, etc. are great. Pre-made tortoise food is also a good supplement. No matter what, variety in the Sulcata’s diet is definitely a must.

Backwater Reptiles currently has captive bred Sulcata tortoise babies for sale.

Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)

Number two on our list of the best pet tortoises is the Leopard Tortoise. This is the second largest African tortoise – only the African Spurred/Sulcata is larger. Adults measure anywhere from ten to eighteen inches in length, whereas hatchlings range from one and half to two inches long – just the perfect size to fit in the palm of your hand.

leopard tortoise
Leopard tortoise hatchlings (and a baby Star Tortoise too) at feeding time.

Outdoor housing is the preferred way to keep a Leopard Tortoise and these tortoises are not aggressive so males and females will coexist peacefully in a backyard where temperatures don’t get too hot or cold. These tortoises are not escape artists like their cousins the Sulcatas, however they still need a fence to keep them from roaming beyond the walls of your backyard.

baby stigmochelys pardalis
Leopard tortoises can make exceptional pet tortoises. They generally thrive in captivity and grow to a reasonable size.

Leopard tortoises have similar diets to other tortoise species with leafy green veggies high in calcium being their staple food. You can also supplement their diets with fruit, but in moderation. Leopard tortoises are grazers like most tortoises and will therefore “mow your lawn” and consume grasses around their enclosure as well.

In addition to hide spaces, dirt for laying eggs, and basking areas, Leopard tortoises will require some type of standing water. They drink readily from water dishes so you might need to provide several depending on the size of their enclosure/yard. Always make sure their water is clean and fresh.

Hatchling leopard tortoise

At the moment, we offer captive bred hatchling Leopard tortoises for sale.

Russian Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii)

The number one best pet tortoise is, in our opinion, the Russian tortoise. Of the three species detailed in this blog, Russians are the smallest and toughest. When they hatch, they measure about an inch long and grow to be around eight to ten inches at most, making them very manageable.

These little tortoises will live around 40-50 years provided they have a good diet and stress free environment.

russian tortoise

Russian tortoises are also best housed outdoors when possible and are notorious diggers. Fencing above and below ground is required to keep them from burrowing out of their enclosure and placing rocks in each corner of their home is also recommended to discourage escape digging.

A mild climate also helps with the digging issue as these tortoises will burrow when the weather is either too hot or too cold to shield themselves from the elements. In fact, Russian tortoises are used to living in a climate with temperatures that dip far below freezing (they dig burrows and stay underground during cold stretches).

Russian Tortoise - Testudo horsfieldii

If you are planning to keep your Russian tortoise outdoors, be sure all plants in the environment are non-toxic to tortoises as these guys prefer leaves and vegetation to grasses. Like the other tortoises in this blog, Russians will eat leafy green salad mixes from grocery stores and commercial tortoise food. Just make sure they have variety in their diet and they should readily eat most vegetation you provide.

At the moment, Backwater Reptiles has medium-sized Russian tortoises for sale. These animals are approximately four to five inches long.