Why Can Turtles Swim But Tortoises Can’t?

Are you interested in a pet turtle or tortoise? Do you want to learn more about the difference between these reptile species? Then you’ve come to the right place! Today, I’ll cover some of the main differences between these two. This includes appearance, preferred habitat, appropriate diet, and more!

You’re probably already aware that turtles and tortoises aren’t exactly the same. But do you know how to distinguish the two? The distinction is important because it tells you how to take care of them. Common misconceptions often lead to unintentional harm to tortoises and turtles.

Remember that turtles and tortoises aren’t equal and you shouldn’t treat them the same way. They aren’t classified as different species just because of their looks. They also need a different habitat and diet to thrive and be healthy.

Turtles vs Tortoise – Main Differences

Tortoises are unable to swim, because of their shell shape, feet shape, and body size. Turtles are smaller, and lighter, have a flatter shell and their feet are like flippers, which makes them really good swimmers.

– Shell Shape

First, the shell shape. Tortoises have a heavy, dome-shaped carapace. Turtles, on the other hand, have a lighter, flatter carapace. From the side, a turtle will usually look more aerodynamic, which makes sense when you think about it. Turtles live mostly in the water. They need to be able to swim easily without their shell weighing them down.

For their shells to stay flatter and lighter, turtles periodically shed their scutes. In contrast, tortoise shells don’t just seem heavier. They’re also thicker, taller, and weightier than turtle shells. That’s because they don’t shed their scutes.

– Feet Shape

Another major difference is in their legs. Tortoises have short, sturdy, and bent front legs with little claws. Think about miniature elephant legs, for instance. Tortoises can easily lift themselves up from the ground because their legs can naturally support their weight and help with land travel.

A turtle’s appendages look more like flippers, perfect for underwater propulsion. Other turtles may also have webbed feet.

– Body Size

Turtles are aquatic animals, spending most of their lives in water. However, turtles also need to spend time on dry land. While they’re excellent swimmers, turtles can’t breathe underwater. That’s why they need to occasionally come out of the water to get enough oxygen. Turtles, just like tortoises, also need direct exposure to sunlight to produce enough vitamin D.

Tortoises are terrestrial, meaning they spend most of their time on land. However, tortoises will seek the nearest pool. Because they are ectotherms, they need to use external sources to regulate their body temperature. To avoid overheating, tortoises will sometimes sit in shallow bodies of water, or dig holes in the ground.

– Diet & Nutrition

Because their natural habitat is in the water, turtles are omnivorous. Their natural diet consists of plants and animal sources of protein such as insects, snails, and small fish. Their terrestrial cousins, tortoises, are generally herbivorous, depending on the sub-species. Most of a tortoise’s diet should consist of fresh vegetables such as dark leafy greens.

Other vitamin-rich vegetables such as peppers, squash, broccoli, and cauliflower are also great sources of nutrition for tortoises. Small amounts of vitamin and antioxidant-rich fruits are also good. A turtle can enjoy the same foods as a tortoise, essentially.

Can Tortoise Drown in Water?

As opposed to turtles, tortoises will drown when thrown into the water. Just like a turtle’s body isn’t well-equipped for terrestrial travel, neither is a tortoise’s body equipped for swimming. For starters, tortoises have big, rounded, and heavy carapaces that can’t cut through the water. This results in tortoises having a hard time moving forward due to water pressure.

A turtle’s flat, sharp, and elongated shell is more aerodynamic. This makes it possible for turtles to effortlessly move through the water. Turtles also have flippers and webbed feet which cover a wider surface area. This makes it easier for them to propel themselves forward when swimming.

On the other hand, tortoises have stubby feet with little claws. Digging holes suits them better than swimming. That’s because a tortoise’s appendages would cover very little surface area for swimming. When combined with their heavy, chunky carapace, you can probably see why swimming isn’t their forte.

Sometimes, tortoises might float on top of the water. This doesn’t mean that tortoises can swim, though. This has more to do with a tortoise’s weight and with the water’s surface tension. With the right circumstances, a tortoise will stay afloat without sinking into the water. However, a floating tortoise still has almost no ability to control its movement in the water.

Did you know that many people accidentally kill baby tortoises by mistaking them for turtles and “releasing” them back into the water? In Florida alone, this has happened so frequently that The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has issued a statement. The organization wants to help people differentiate between sea turtles and tortoises, to prevent similar future events from happening.

Of course, nobody would intentionally kill a baby tortoise, right? It just happens that good people end up harming tortoises due to common misconceptions. What if you’re unsure if what you’ve found is a turtle or a tortoise? Could you drown it by tossing it back into the water?

To avoid this, gently place the animal close to the water, and see what it does. If it happily moves into the water, it’s a turtle. If it doesn’t, then it’s probably a tortoise.

Getting a Pet Turtle or Tortoise

Whether you decide to keep a pet turtle or tortoise, setting up the right environment is crucial. This is good for your pet’s physical health and mental wellbeing. Just like us, animals can also feel stressed under unsuitable living conditions. You should know that both turtles and tortoises need plenty of space for swimming and roaming.

You can keep a pet tortoise in any spacious tank. But choose a tank that has tall walls. This will prevent your tortoise from climbing up and falling over the edge. The walls should also be strong enough to prevent the tortoise from breaking them and getting itself hurt. I don’t recommend a top lid for your tank, because it might lead to overheating. Avoid glass tanks, as they might also heat up and cause harm to your pet.

Tortoises can’t self-regulate their body temperature. They need a lot of heat to maintain optimal temperature. Direct sunlight exposure is also a must. Without sunlight, tortoises can’t produce vitamin D, and this will negatively impact their health. If you don’t live in a sunny climate, you can also use a heat lamp for your pet.

Besides heat and sunlight, a pet tortoise will also need moisture. You can increase the humidity in the air by using a spray or humidifier. It’s also a good idea to line the bottom of the tank with sand, potting soil, rocks, and leaves. This will best simulate a tortoise’s natural habitat and improve its comfort.

Enclosure Setup for Pet Turtle

If you want to adopt a turtle, make sure the tank is large enough for it to swim freely. Generally, turtles need about 10 gallons (38 liters) worth of swimming space for every inch of body size. If you start with a smaller tank, you will need to upgrade to a larger size as your pet turtle grows.

It goes without saying, but your turtle will need a constant supply of clean, fresh water. You should clean the tank and replace the water regularly. You can also install a water filter to clean any impurities. Adding aquatic plants to your tank will also help with filtering harmful compounds in the water, while also increasing oxygen content.

Make sure that the plants you choose are safe for your turtle to eat! Turtles will often snack on small amounts of plant matter, such as your aquatic plants. It’s important to choose non-toxic varieties of plants so that your turtle doesn’t get food poisoning. I suggest you try plants such as Java Fern, Java Moss, Hornwort, Moneywort, and Anacharis Elodea.

Similar to terrestrial turtles and tortoises, aquatic turtles also need a portion of dry land where they can come up to breathe, rest, and bask in the sun. You can arrange the dry land using sand or large rocks. If you can’t place your tank in a space with direct sunlight, you can also use a UV light lamp. Just make sure that the light source is far enough from your turtle to prevent overheating.

Too much sunlight can harm both turtles and tortoises. They need constant hydration to stay healthy and comfortable. Especially turtles, which have a crush on water mediums, need more hydration than tortoises.

avatar William
William is a respected pet enthusiast with expertise in reptiles and birds. With extensive experience caring for these animals, he shares his knowledge through engaging and informative articles in various publications. He is an active member of pet-related organizations, volunteering regularly at shelters and promoting animal welfare and conservation. read more...

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