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Turtles & Tortoises

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The words “turtle” and “tortoise” are often used interchangeably, and it’s not hard to understand the confusion. Both reptiles look similar and live in tropical and temperate climates. Each has a hard shell, short limbs and a long neck, and both turtles and tortoises belong to the same biological order, known as Chelonia. But, although turtles and tortoises share some physical characteristics, their habitats are very different.


Turtles are aquatic reptiles that live primarily in bodies of water, although they do enjoy sunning themselves on the banks of ponds or on a floating log or tree branch. You can find them in oceans, streams, lakes and ponds. Tortoises live on the land and prefer wooded areas, grasslands and deserts. Most species of tortoise can’t swim and might drown if placed in water. Both reptiles live in nearly every continent of the world, except in the frigid environment of Antarctica. Tortoises make their homes in areas with plenty of plants or shrubs to eat. Turtles eat plants, but also eat fish, insects, snails and worms.

Physical Characteristics

Approximately 60 bones make up a tortoise or turtle shell. On top of each bone is a hard plate called a scute. The bones and shell form the skeleton of the reptiles, which attaches permanently to the body. While some types of turtles and tortoises can withdraw their heads into their shells, neither species can leave their shells. The hard exterior of the shell helps protect the reptiles from predators.

Tortoises have rounded shells that help deter other animals from biting them, while turtles have flatter shells that allow them to move through the water more easily. The feet of turtles and tortoises are also very different. Turtle feet are webbed and act as flippers when the turtle swims. Tortoises have short, rounded feet that enable them to walk easily on land.

Turtles and Tortoises as Pets

Turtles and tortoises can live for 20 years or more, and some types can live past the century mark. Because your pet will be with you for a long time, it’s important not to buy or adopt a turtle or tortoise unless you're fairly certain you’ll be able to care for it for years. Before you bring your pet home, you’ll need to buy a terrarium or tank large enough to allow the turtle or tortoise sufficient room to swim or explore. The size of the terrarium or tank you’ll need will depend on the size of the reptile. Buy a heat lamp to ensure that your pet is warm enough in his new home. While commercially made food is available, you’ll also want to make sure your turtle or tortoise gets adequate amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit.


Turtles can carry salmonella, a bacterial illness that causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps in people. Turtles less than 4 inches in length have been banned from sale in the United States since the 1970s due to the salmonella risk. While all turtles can carry salmonella, you can decrease your risk of developing the illness by following a few precautions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests washing your hands with soap and water after touching the turtle or his cage and washing any surfaces that might have touched the cage. It also suggests not owning a turtle if anyone if your home is under age 5, elderly or has less resistance to disease due to illnesses, pregnancy or chemotherapy treatment.