Numerous turtle species occupy aquatic ecosystems. Some are full-time residents of lakes, rivers and oceans, while others utilize the land and water for habitat and food. Water turtles do share some common characteristics that make them distinct from the land-dwelling tortoise. Color and physical attributes are the most common identifying factors.
The land turtle or tortoise is adapted to blend with sandy and rocky environments. The color patterns are typically bland and have little contrast. Water turtles have more vibrant color patterns with striping and spotting on the shell and neck. Striping, banding and spotting with yellow, red, green and blue are normal. Marine environments encourage more exotic color patterns than inland environments.
All turtles have either a round, smooth or spiny shell. Water turtles have a smooth shell with a tapered shape that's designed for efficient swimming. The shell is a distinct feature that separates water turtles from land turtles. Land turtle shells have a higher peak, rounded design and in some cases spines for defense. The only exception is the snapping turtle. Snapping turtles occupy land and water environments and act as ambush predators.
Feet and Flippers
Water turtles have adapted feet for swimming. Turtles in marine and full-time aquatic environments have long legs with flipper paddles that transition into feet. Part-time aquatics have shorter legs but maintain webbed feet for swimming. Land-based turtles have little webbing and longer toes for digging and foraging.
Identifying a water turtle from a land turtle is possible through habitat observations. This application primarily applies to turtles in their native environments. Turtles living in swamps, ponds, rivers, lakes and oceans are all aquatic in nature. This is especially true when the turtles are fund submerged or partially submerged. Water turtles have nostrils positioned on the top of the head to allow for breathing while submerged.
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Zach Lazzari is a Montana based freelance outdoor writer and photographer. You can follow his work at bustedoarlock.com.