The Differences Between Turtles Tortoises and Terrapins

What are the differences between turtles, tortoises and terrapins?

The terms ‘turtle,’ ‘tortoise,’ and ‘terrapin’ are often used interchangeably, and depending on which country you are in, may describe a completely different type of ‘turtle.’ Before you get too concerned about the common names, let us take a step back and identify them as belonging to one common order, the Chelonia. If it has a shell and is a reptile, then it is going to fall into the order Chelonia, which includes about 320 different species in the world.

For most Americans, the term ‘turtle’ describes the Chelonians that are aquatic or semi-aquatic. The term ‘tortoise’ describes a Chelonian that lives primarily on land. ‘Terrapin’ can describe some freshwater or saltwater turtles, but is not often used.

If you were in Indonesia, you might call all the sea or marine turtles species as “penyu”, tortoises or “land turtles” species as “kura-kura” and “shoft-shell turles” as “Labi-labi” or “Bulus”, meanwhile “terrapins” species is also called as “Tuntong” in Northern Sumatra culture.

There can be a lot of differences between individual species. For the ease of comparison, we are trying to go out on a limb and make a couple of general assumptions about the difference between turtles and tortoises. In general, tortoises live on land and eat a primarily vegetarian diet, and turtles live in or near the water and eat a meat-based diet or a combination of meat and vegetation.

To take this one step further, turtles are often broken down into aquatic and semi-aquatic species. The aquatic species spend the majority of their lives in or near the water and eat a diet that is mostly meat based. Semi-aquatic turtles spend a greater period of time on land, but periodically enter the water. Semi-aquatic turtles tend to eat both plants and animals. An example of a semi-aquatic turtle is the well-known American Box Turtle. While there are several subspecies differences, this turtle tends to spend most of its time on land, but enters very shallow water several times a week to defecate. The young turtles are primarily meat eaters, but as they get older, they eat a primarily vegetarian diet.

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