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.


How Fast the Growth of Painted Terrapin Hatchling?

How fast the growth of Painted terrapin hatchling?

A Painted terrapin hatchling, named Roni who was blind from birth, was hatchedon 26 March 2013. Roni did not released back to the wild because he is blind so it is feared that he will not being able to survive well in the wild. Due to this reason, Roni has been reared in captivity in the pond. Currently Roni aged 1 year 1 month 9 days or 404 days old. She/he was hatched with a carapace length of 5.2 cm and 4.7 cm width. While currently the carapace length of 11.8 cm. Thus, Roni has been grew 6.6 cm after 404 days in captivity. When Roni was 1 month old – on April 2013 -, his/her carapace length only 6.3 cm. In other words, the growth during the first month is 1.1 cm. Continue reading “How Fast the Growth of Painted Terrapin Hatchling?”

Freshwater turtle crosses the Geographical Barriers

Scientists at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Dresden, together with an international team of researchers, have studied the widely distributed freshwater turtle, Mauremys rivulata. In spite of geographical barriers, the turtles are genetically very similar throughout their vast distribution range. This would indicate that that animals cross hundreds of kilometres of sea. The study is published in the scientific journal Zoologica Scripta…

For full reading, please read at the link below:

Cited from:

Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum. “Freshwater turtle crosses the Aegean Sea.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 April 2014. <>.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

Melita Vamberger, Heiko Stuckas, Dinçer Ayaz, Petros Lymberakis, Pavel Široký, Uwe Fritz. Massive transoceanic gene flow in a freshwater turtle (Testudines: Geoemydidae:Mauremys rivulata). Zoologica Scripta, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/zsc.12055

Facts about turtles

  • Consist of 331 species – turtles, freshwater turtles, tortoises, terrapins and sea turtles – throughout the world.
  • The only place where turtles are can’t live is Antarctica.
  • They are only vertebrates on Earth whose arms connect to their body.
  • The most freshwater turtles are temperature-dependent sex determinant. High temperature produce female, while low temperature produce male.
English: Adult Dermochelys coriacea, Leatherba...
English: Adult Dermochelys coriacea, Leatherback Sea Turtle Türkçe: yumurta bırakmak için gece kumsala çıkmış bir deri sırtlı deniz kaplumbağası (Dermochelys coriacea) görüntüsüdür. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Turtles have been on the earth for more than 200 million years. They evolved before mammals, birds, crocodiles, snakes, and even lizards. Turtles are one of the oldest and most primitive groups of reptiles and have outlived many other species. One can only wonder if their unique shell is responsible for their longevity. But, a newest study shows that they are not too primitive and more related to bird.
  • The earliest turtles had teeth and could not retract their heads, but other than this, modern turtles are very similar to their original ancestors.
aldabra tortoise
aldabra tortoise
  • Several species of turtles can live over a hundred years of age, for example Aldabra tortoise. A documented case of longevity involves an adult Indian Ocean Giant Tortoise that, when captured as an adult, was estimated to be fifty years old. It then lived another 152 years in captivity.
  • Turtles have good eyesight and an excellent sense of smell. Hearing and sense of touch are both good and even the shell contains nerve endings.
  • Some aquatic turtles can absorb oxygen through the skin on their neck and cloacal areas allowing them to remain submerged underwater for extended periods of time and enabling them to hibernate underwater. All turtles can go without oxygen for several hours, but the western painted turtle can go without oxygen for 30 hours at room temperature and four months at 37 degrees Fahrenheit.
painted turtle (
  • Turtles will live in almost any climate warm enough to allow them to complete their breeding cycle.
  • Most freshwater turtles do not tolerate the cold well, but the Blanding’s turtle has been observed swimming under the ice in the Great Lakes region.
  • Turtles range in size from the 4-inch such as Bog Turtle to the 1500-pound such as Leatherback turtle (a species of sea turtle). The biggest freshwater turtle ever found is Rafetus swinhoei in Vietnam.
Rafetus swinhoei
Rafetus swinhoei (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • North America, China and Indonesia have a large variety of turtle species, but Europe contains only two species of turtle and three species of tortoise.
  • The top domed part of a turtle’s shell is called the carapace, and the bottom underlying part is called the plastron.
  • The shell of a turtle is made up of 60 different bones all connected together.
  • The bony portion of the shell is covered with plates (scutes) that are derivatives of skin and offer additional strength and protection.
  • Most land tortoises have high, domed carapaces that offer protection from the snapping jaws of terrestrial predators. Aquatic turtles tend to have flatter, more aerodynamically shaped shells.
red eared slider (photo:naturemappingfoundation)
  • A species of freshwater turtles Red Eared Slider is the most invasive species in the world.

How to care turtles

Keeping turtles require much attention, a long-term commitment, and their routine maintenance requires time set aside each day. With a proper habitat and clean environment, watching your turtle swim, dive and chase his food provides seemingly endless entertainment. Here are some tips for you to keep turtles:

painted terrapin
painted terrapin


Keep the temperature at 77 to 95 degrees F for aquatic and semi aquatic species. Use an aquarium heater when needed; turtles and terrapins become sluggish and stop eating in low temperatures. A general rule of thumb is that your full-grown turtle’s body shouldn’t take up more than 25 percent of the floor space of the aquarium. Because aquatic turtles spend so much time in the water, the swimming area should be at least three-quarters of the tank and deep enough for the turtle to completely submerge in to swim in with ramps, rocks or bricks that allow him to easily get out of the water. The tank setup should provide a basking area for the turtle to dry off and soak up some heat. Basking is critical for drying and preventing shell problems. And since turtles can’t store vitamin D 3, they must be exposed to UVB light for absorption. Specialty ramps, a floating natural or artificial log, or even some large rocks can provide this.

Clean the entire aquarium (including the filtration system) at least once a month. Clean ponds or large enclosures where the animal spends time at least every three to six months. Prevent your turtle’s environment from becoming soiled by either netting or siphoning off all fecal matter as soon as possible. Fecal buildup can cause health problems.


Watching your turtles diet. Whether your pet turtle is an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore. For example, red-eared sliders, painted turtles and other species are predominantly carnivorous during their youth and primarily omnivorous throughout their adulthood.  While soft-shell turtles, on the other hand, are primarily carnivores. A complete turtle pellet provides a good base diet for aquatic pet turtles, but they all need daily additions. Herbivores speceis are often enjoy dark, leafy greens; while carnivores devour appropriately sized slugs, earthworms, guppies, brine shrimp and mealworms, and other live creatures. Omnivores need a selection of both types.

Supplement the diet with appropriate snacks: Earthworms, crustaceans, small fish, mouse pups, algae, leafy green vegetation and fruit are examples of suitable foods for terrapins. Semi aquatic species tend to be herbivorous – they tend to eat plants only. Feed your pet two to three times a week in a small holding tank that is separate from its normal enclosure; uneaten food can attract disease – causing microorganisms. Size of the food should be proportionate to the size of the turtle. Rinse off your turtle after a feeding with slightly warm water before returning him to his enclosure.

cuora amboinensis (photo: joko guntoro)
cuora amboinensis (photo: joko guntoro)

Water filtration

Keep the water clean to prevent health problems. Use an aquarium filtration system to maintain optimal water quality. Monitoring the temperature, salinity and pH of water. Some turtles prefer more salinity in their water; learn about your species to find the specific level and add the special sea salt available at aquarium stores to adjust the salinity. Perform water changes daily, if possible, or a few times a week. Bare-bottom tanks help keep the water clean, as does a quality filtration system.


Temperature plays a vital role in your turtle’s health and happiness. Too cold or too warm could stress him out or make him ill. For most aquatic turtles, the water temperature should be between 75 and 80 degrees; soft-shelled turtles prefer slightly cooler temperatures in from 72 to 75 degrees. Keep an eye on the water temperature with a tank thermometer. Room temperature will be a little too chilly for his basking area; point a heat lamp over the basking ramps or rocks to make the air temperature in the mid-80s to low 90s.