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Turtle vs Tortoise vs Terrapin – What is the Difference?

Did you ever wonder what makes turtles and tortoises different? And what in the world is a terrapin? Some of you may not even have heard of a terrapin (including me before writing this article).

These three scaly animals all belong to the Testudines or Chelonii taxonomic family. All three are turtles, generally speaking. They are cold-blooded, they breathe air, lay eggs, and have scales.

But then, why do they have different names? Well, there are some differences that account for this. Next up, we’ll present a direct comparison between turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. Each species has specific behavioral patterns, ideal habitats, body parts, etc. Are you ready? Let’s go!

Turtles vs. Tortoises vs. Terrapins

Depending on the country you live in, people may refer to all turtle-looking, scaly animals as turtles. Or they could refer only to the water-dwelling animal as a turtle. For instance, in America, all the Chelonians that live in water or near bodies of water are “turtles.” Tortoises, on the other hand, live on land. There isn’t a difference of opinion here, which is just great.

To understand the difference between these three scaly creatures, we’ll have to talk about each of them, individually.

– Turtles

Turtles are all marine-based, aquatic creatures that don’t have claws. They spend most of their lives in the sea, only coming out on land to lay eggs on the beach. When the baby turtles hatch, the mother turtle comes and picks them up.

The shell of a turtle is flat and streamlined. This reduces friction and drag during swimming. Turtles also don’t have any legs or clawed limbs. Instead, they have flippers that help them swim.

With an omnivorous diet, turtles can eat jellyfish, sea sponges, vegetation, invertebrates, and so on. And their size varies as well, with the biggest turtles reaching up to lengths of 1-1.75 meters, with a weight of 250-700kg. But these are only for the biggest turtles out there, like the leatherback sea turtle. Others are considerably smaller!

There are different types and species of turtles, yet all fall within these ranges. They have flippers, a streamlined shell, and their diet is mostly omnivorous.

You may not differentiate between specific turtle species and tortoises, though. Some of them are really alike. Though, you’ll learn to spot the differences in time.

– Tortoises

Unlike their water-dwelling peers, tortoises live exclusively on dry land, especially in hot environments. Tortoises don’t have streamlined shells but rather dome-shaped shells that protect them from predators. Instead of flipper-like appendages, tortoises have clawed legs that offer great efficiency when moving on land.

Tortoises aren’t likely to enter water too often if only to wash themselves in small puddles. They prefer the stability of dry land. Most tortoises are also herbivorous, for the most part. While they may eat meat, they prefer vegetables, weeds, grass, fruits, seeds, and so on.

Similar to turtles, tortoises can grow to become giants, with the largest tortoises reaching lengths of 1.3 meters and 400kg in weight. They also live a lot, with Jonathan, the oldest living tortoise in the world turning 189 years in 2021.

Jonathan is a giant Seychelles tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea hololissa) famous around the world for its age and immense weight.

– Terrapins

A terrapin is what happens when you mate a turtle with a tortoise, metaphorically speaking. Terrapins are smaller, with even giant terrapins only reaching 60-70cm in length and 80kg in weight.

They prefer freshwater areas (ponds, lakes, waterholes), with a slightly salty composition. While adept swimmers, terrapins also spend some quality time on land, basking in the sun or bathing in mud.

The shell of a terrapin is both domed and streamlined, and they also have clawed limbs like tortoises. A true hybrid between turtles and tortoises, in other words. Their diet is omnivorous, so they can eat fish, molluscs, algae, crustaceans, and other plants. While relatively small, a terrapin is one mean and aggressive animal.

Don’t mistake their small size for cuteness because you’ll be surprised. They have a powerful snapping jaw that can bite your finger off in a single motion. If you encroach on their territory, a band of terrapins may even start chasing you around, chomping their jaws in a “barking” sound.

I know, barking turtles. What has the world come to? But what can you do? That’s the animal world for you. There are surprises around every corner, and terrapins are still quite tame compared to other natural wonders out there. I fully recommend a terrapin, though!

All tortoises are turtles, yet not all turtles are tortoises. Enter, terrapins!

A “turtle” is the common term used to refer to members of the Testudinidae subclass of the Testudines family. Similar to how all tigers are cats, yet not all cats are tigers. All tortoises are turtles, yet the other way around isn’t necessarily true. Terrapins belong to the “turtle” family, as well, yet they’re not tortoises.

While turtles live in the sea and have flippers, tortoises live on land and have clawed feet. Terrapins also have clawed feet, and they inhabit both land and sea. Terrapins are also more sociable than both tortoises and turtles.

I guess this comes as a result of the lower life span (about 30 years). In comparison, turtles live anywhere from 10 to 100 years. They can be lazier and take their sweet time doing things. That’s why they’re less sociable, as well. What’s the rush?

The biggest difference between them, then, is their habitat. Their behavior differs a bit, with many quirks specific to every species. Personally, I’d go for a terrapin due to their high adaptation to both land and watery environments. Their smaller size makes it easy to care for them.

And most importantly, terrapins are more sociable than their shier counterparts. They’re family-friendly and they even get along with other pets, more so than a turtle or a tortoise.

Think of a terrapin as an overactive turtle that’s both a turtle and not a turtle. Confused yet? Yeah, you shouldn’t be, now that you know the differences between them.

The name “terrapin” comes from a Native American word that means “little turtle,” so there you go. It’s small, cute-looking, and quite aggressive if you piss it off. A turtle on Redbull with a steroid-infused jaw is just what everyone needs in their homes.

Though, tortoises and turtles live much longer than terrapins. So, if you want to get a pet that’s going to outlive you, a turtle or a tortoise is ideal. Otherwise, a terrapin makes for a mean pet.

Reptiles - Updated: June 30, 2021
avatar I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets.

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