Hard shells, scaly legs, sharp claws and a head that can disappear inside their carapace. If you didn’t know any better, then you probably would’ve imagined some scary alien or monster from a horror movie. But since you probably haven’t looked away in fear yet, then you know which animals we’re describing. We’re of course talking about tortoises and turtles.
Both tortoises and turtles are reptiles that come from the same family. They are very unique animals with distinct personalities, which is probably why they’ve been so popular as pets in the past few years.
If they’re the kind of animals you’d want as pets, then you’ve probably had the conundrum of choosing between a tortoise and a turtle. At the very least, you’ve probably heard that there’s a distinct difference between the two, especially with their appearance and their needs.
Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at what makes tortoises and turtles so different from each other, and which one would make a more suitable pet for your needs.
Spotting the Difference
Despite looking more or less the same, and being from the same family of reptiles, tortoises and turtles have distinct physical differences. The word turtle is actually an umbrella term that describes any reptile that has a bony shell. This bony shell functions as its spine and ribs. So, for semantics sake, all tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises.
For our purposes, however, we’ll use the word turtle to describe a very distinct member of the family chelonian, the family where all turtle and tortoise species belong.
Tortoises are different from turtles in that they are more accustomed to living on land. While some tortoise species do choose to soak in shallow pools in the wild, they are not built for swimming.
In rare instances, however, tortoises can float on water, whether to cross a stream or even move from one island to another, such as the case with the Giant Aldabra Tortoise. They’re mostly paddling when they’re in the water, though, and don’t actually dive. Tortoise shells can be very buoyant, despite how heavy some species can get.
Tortoises tend to have sturdier bodies, with padded feet to be able to support their own weight better, just like elephants. Their claws are shorter and sturdier, making them especially designed to burrow through dirt, with some species like the African Spurred Tortoise and the Gopher Tortoise being able to dig out tunnel systems that are miles long underground. Tortoise species are also known to grow much larger and heavier than turtles do.
Turtles, on the other hand, are more adapted to living in water, both partially and completely. Species like the Red Eared Slider, the Diamondback Terrapin and the Common Mud Turtle all share one or more characteristics that allow them to live a semi-aquatic lifestyle. These characteristics include webbed feet, the ability to survive underwater for hours, longer claws for a better grip on the slippery banks, and streamlined shells.
To make things more confusing, though, some species of turtle, such as the Common Box Turtle or the Yellow Margined Box Turtle, actually live more on land than turtles do. As a matter of fact, they live on land as much as you’d expect a tortoise would, but they’re not called tortoises. So how do you really tell tortoises and turtles apart 100% of the time? It’s simple. Look at their front feet.
Tortoises tend to walk on their toes, with their heels never touching the ground completely. Turtles on the other hand put the entirety of their “palms” on the ground when they’re walking, so the heels on their front feet touch the ground. Turtles have evolved to walk this way in order to get as much traction as possible when they’re walking over slippery rocks, as turtles are often wont to do.
Tortoises Vs. Turtles
Tortoises and turtles have very different dietary needs from one another, and it’s important that you familiarize yourself with their nutrition if you plan to keep one or the other.
Tortoises are mostly herbivorous animals, preferring to eat grass, leaves and the occasional fruit. Some species, however, also eat meat whenever it’s available, like the Red Foot Tortoise, and even the Galapagos Tortoise, which is known to kill and eat small birds.
Turtles on the other hand are omnivorous, which means they consume both meat and vegetation. Young turtles are known to be more carnivorous than their adult counterparts, with some species preferring to hunt worms, snails and insects.
This is because hatchlings need more protein in order to grow as quickly as possible. As turtles grow older, they start eating more plants in order to balance out their nutritional needs.
This makes feeding turtles a lot more challenging than feeding tortoises. If you’ve started out with a hatchling turtle, you’ll be forced to feed it nothing but meat or high-protein pellets for the first few years of its life.
The switch to a plant-based diet later in its life can also be a difficult process, since you’ll need to balance out meat and plants. Tortoises are a lot more consistent with what they eat, with a huge chunk of their diet consisting of greens and weeds.
One of the biggest factors to consider when you plan on getting either a tortoise or a turtle is the space for their home. Both types of animals benefit from a huge space for them to live in. The composition of this space differs just as greatly as the physical differences between tortoises and turtles, but they will need room.
If you plan on getting hatchlings of either type of animal, you will also need to plan ahead, so even if they end up growing, there’s still plenty of space left over for them to use.
Tortoises are more or less straightforward with their habitat needs. For small to medium species, Like Greek Tortoises, an enclosure that is 8 feet by 4 feet should be enough for one or two animals. If you plan on getting a hatchling, you can safely get an enclosure that’s half the size, but make sure to get something more appropriate once it reaches at least 4 to 6 inches in length. The enclosure walls should also be at least 12 inches higher than your substrate.
Larger tortoise species, like the African Spurred Tortoise or the Giant Aldabra Tortoise will need to be housed in a significantly larger enclosure, preferably outside where they can get enough sunlight. You can’t put an Aldabra inside an enclosure meant for a Greek Tortoise and expect it to be happy.
On the other hand, turtles will need a lot of water to swim in, depending on the species. Certain species, however, like the Common Mud Turtle and the Razorback Musk Turtle, are not particularly good swimmers, so you can get away with putting less water in their habitats.
Of course, younger turtles will also need less water. As a matter of fact, too much water, where they can’t surface for air easily, can be harmful for them.
So how much water will you need to properly house a semi-aquatic turtle? The best bet is by putting 10 gallons of water for every inch of the turtle’s shell. This should be enough space for them to swim in, but not too much that they’ll find it difficult to surface.
You can house turtles safely inside a regular fish tank, though a lot of turtle owners prefer putting pets inside plastic tubs, as being able to see through their enclosure, as is the case with glass tanks, can stress turtles out.
Both tortoise and turtles benefit from a heat lamp and a UVB lamp. You’ll need a raised platform of rock or wood to act as a basking area for turtles, somewhere high and away from the water that can be dried off if no turtle is using it, but still accessible via a ramp, or something similar.
For tortoises, their basking area should be made of a good insulating material that can heat up well, but not too hot. Basalt or Sandstone are great options.
The next thing you’ll need to consider is money. Both getting and keeping either one will cost money, and they both will run you quite a bit, both for the monthly upkeep and for the initial purchase. First, let’s look into the initial costs of getting either a tortoise or turtle.
Tortoises are more expensive to get, with some species costing more than certain purebred dogs. Depending on the species and the age, you can see prices as low as $50 for a Sulcata hatchling or as much as $20,000 for an adult Aldabra Tortoise. On average, however, most people would expect to spend at least $100 for a hatchling tortoise.
Turtles, on the other hand, are more common, and will cost much less. Even with the limit imposed by some U.S. states on selling hatchlings smaller than 4 inches, turtles are still far more numerous in the market, and far cheaper. You can get certain species for as low as $20, to as much as $500, depending on the age and the species.
Despite the affordability of getting a turtle, however, they tend to be a bit more expensive to keep. This is a common problem amongst new turtle keepers, since they get drawn in by how cheap it is to get a turtle, not realizing the amount of money they end up spending on a monthly basis in order to take care of them properly.
Food, for one thing, will run you quite a bit, since turtles, especially for hatchlings, will need quite a bit of meat to grow healthy. You’ll need to spend money on fruits, greens, pellets, supplements, and live food, and you will have to feed them at least 3 or 4 times a week.
The greens and fruits alone can cost you as much as $20 to $50 a month, depending on how big your turtle is, and an extra $15 or so a month for the pellets, the supplements and the live food.
Tortoises are much easier to feed, with their only dietary requirement being plants. Tortoise food will cost you $15 to $40 a month, and this includes supplements. Some species do eat meat, particularly tortoise species that live in forests, though not as often as turtles would. So, you’ll still have to spend a bit to feed these species live feed. We have a full guide on the cost of keeping a pet costs here
The Power Costs
Because both tortoises and turtles make use of heat lamps and UVB lights, they will set you back a bit on power bills. The power consumption will cost anywhere between $10 to $13 a month per bulb, and this is for both tortoises and turtles. For turtles, however, you’ll also need to pay extra for water heating and for running the filters to keep the water clean, with prices going up the bigger your tank gets.
For a 10-gallon tank, for example, you’ll be looking at an extra $2 – $4 a month, to as much as $17 to $18 for a 100-gallon tank.
Another major thing to consider when you’re comparing turtles to tortoises is the lifespan. Tortoises and turtles, unlike dogs or cats, will need a constant amount of care for far longer, since they tend to count years in decades.
Now, whether you consider a pet living long as a good or bad thing depends ultimately on your needs. Pets who live shorter lives could mean less for you to worry about in long term care, but this also means you’ll have to deal the emotional effects of losing a pet more often and much sooner.
On the other hand, if a pet may end up outliving you, as tortoises and turtles are likely to do, you will have to make arrangements to make sure that they continue living comfortably long after you’ve passed away. You may need to write them into your will, in fact.
In terms of lifespan, tortoises have the upper hand, with some species living for as much as 150 years. That could be three to five generations taking care of a single tortoise. If you got a hatchling and managed to take good care of it, the same eyes that look at you when you offer them food could be looking at your great-great grandchildren when they offer it food, long after you’re gone.
Turtles, on the other hand, have lifespans anywhere between 20 to 50 years, though some species can live as much as 80. They may not outlast you, but they may certainly outlast your dog or cat. Turtles also tend to mature quicker than tortoises, so if you’re planning on breeding them, they’ll certainly reproduce much faster. We have written a full guide on the life span of a tortoise here.
Of course, if you’re planning on getting a pet, you’ll also need to consider how they are going to act towards you as well as your other pets, if you have any. Generally speaking, turtles are more territorial than tortoises, and if you plan on keeping more than one, you may be forced to put them in separate tubs in order to prevent bullying or fighting.
Although it is possible to keep more than one turtle in a tub when they’re smaller, they will start competing for space once they reach sexual maturity. This is also one of the reasons why it’s not a good idea to put 2 different species of turtles in the same tub.
Tortoises also tend to be territorial, especially with Mediterranean species and certain desert species. However, they are more forgiving when you plan on keeping more than one tortoise in one enclosure. It is possible to keep one male tortoise and multiple females in one place without any aggression. Some tortoises, such as the Red Foot Tortoise and Aldabra, prefer to spend time with members of the same species.
In fact, Red Foot hatchlings would prefer to congregate inside one hide, even when there are multiple other hides available for them to use.
Both tortoises and turtles are pets you tend to just watch, much like fishes, and aren’t at all good for cuddling. They tend to be skittish and new pets will be very wary towards you for the first couple of weeks. Both are very impressionable, however, and are easily motivated by food. If either tortoise or turtle notices that you’re the one bringing in the food, then you’re basically their best friend.
One threat that looms over both tortoise and turtle keepers is salmonella poisoning. Both tortoises and turtles carry a strain of salmonella inside their guts and can pass them on through their poop. Turtles in particular are quite problematic in this regard, as they basically are swimming in their own toilets. The water they swim on, if not filtered and cleaned out properly, is a breeding ground for salmonella.
Tortoises are a lot more manageable. They tend to poop in clumps that are easily spot-cleaned or swept off, and unless they stepped over their own poop, they’re not easily spread around. Now, if you wear gloves whenever you handle either tortoises or turtles, or if you wash thoroughly before and after you handle them, salmonella isn’t much to worry about.
Although both turtles and tortoises have their own merits and demerits, whatever you want to keep is ultimately down to your own needs. Both will make great pets that could last you a lifetime, maybe more. That said, however, if you have the luxury of choosing between a tortoise or a turtle for your first pet, it’s best to go for the tortoise.
Tortoises are easier to keep, since they don’t need a lot of water outside of what they soak in and drink, and they’re much easier to feed. You also wouldn’t need to put money into running water filters and water heaters in their enclosure. If you’re planning on getting more than one, you also wouldn’t have to worry much about aggression between your pets. Take good care of a tortoise, and you’ll have a friend for life. It wouldn’t even cost you much.