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A tortoise is any member of the tortoise family, a reptile vertebrate that lives exclusively on land.
Tortoises, also known as tortoises, are found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. There are nearly 50 species of tortoises in more than 15 genera, which vary widely in size, color, and other characteristics. Many only exist in the wild, but some are kept as pets. Some species are considered endangered to some extent, but conservation efforts have helped boost population numbers in some cases. With an average lifespan of 80 to 150 years, tortoises are the longest-lived land animals on Earth.
5 Unbelievable Turtle Facts!
- Survivor : Turtles can survive for a long time without consuming any water or food. On whaling ships, they were often placed on their backs and used as a source of fresh meat on long voyages.
- Persistence : Like all turtles, tortoises move very slowly. On arid islands, tortoises lick dew off boulders, leaving hemispherical depressions in the rocks.
- Longevity : Adwaita is an Aldabra giant tortoise that is said to live to be 255 years old. There are several other examples of turtles living to over 150 years old.
- Wide distribution : Tortoises have a wide range and are found from southern North America to southern South America; across Eurasia to Southeast Asia; across the Mediterranean basin; through sub-Saharan Africa; and on Madagascar and some Pacific islands.
- Ancient : Sea turtles and tortoises are believed to have first appeared about 220 million years ago.
Want to know more about turtles? Be sure to read "10 Incredible Facts About Turtles."
In some parts of the world, the term "turtle" is used interchangeably with the term "sea turtle". However, the general consensus is that a tortoise refers to a tortoise that only lives on land. These animals are reptiles; therefore, they belong to the class Reptiles. They are further divided into the order Turtle and Turtleidae . From there, there are about 49 species, spanning more than 15 genera. The term Testudines is derived from the Latin word for tortoise. Turtle's pronunciation is confusing. The correct pronunciation is "tore", then "tuss".
Species of tortoises vary widely in size, color, and other characteristics. The smallest horned flying squirrels (members of the genus Homopus ) can reach a length of 4 to 6 inches and are found in southern Africa. The largest giant tortoises—members of the genus Geochelone —can have shells more than 3.3 feet long.
Turtles/tortoises evolved in South Africa about 260 million years ago from a small reptile called Eunotosaurus africanus . This strange little lizard had the makings of a modern sea turtle, with thick, backward-curved ribs forming an armored dome under its skin.
A reptile called Odontochelys semitestacea evolved 40 million years later in the shallow seas of China. Odontochelys had a feature shared by modern sea turtles—the plastron, or bottom shell. It is believed that these turtle ancestors first developed the lower carapace as sharks and other predators attacked them from below the surface.
Proganochelys , or "turtles," lived among dinosaurs and were armored above and below. In addition to its protective shell, the ancient tortoise had bony neck, leg and tail spines. Like its modern relatives, it had a bony shell and a toothless mouth.
These three tortoise ancestors diverged into the terrapins, sea turtles and tortoises we know today.
Turtles are cold-blooded or ectothermic animals with high domed shells or carapaces. The only species with a flat shell is the pancake turtle Malachochersus tornieri . Like most sea turtles, they can retract their head and neck into their shell for protection. They are the only vertebrates in which the thoracic and pelvic girdles are located within the ribcage, and they are the only vertebrates with shells.
Their shells consist of 59 to 61 bones covered by plates called scutellums. "Scute" is pronounced the same as "scoot". The scutellum also forms segments, which create a distinctive pattern on the tortoise's shell. The underside of the shell is called the plastron, and the two halves are connected by a bridge. Tortoise shells are mainly composed of keratin, and tortoises can sense pain through their carapaces, just like humans can feel pain through their nails.
Turtles have no teeth in their jaws. Although the animal lacked teeth, it had a horny beak that it used to break down food and other substances. All tortoises have specialized hindlimb anatomy, including pictographic or cylindrical hindlimbs and hind feet. Animals have two or fewer phalanges for each digit of the front and rear feet.
Many species of tortoises are sexually dimorphic, meaning that females and males have distinctly different characteristics. The easiest way to determine a turtle's sex is to examine its tail. Females tend to have smaller tails and hang straight down. Males usually have longer tails, which they usually pull up to one side on the back of the shell.
tortoise and tortoise
All shelled vertebrates, including tortoises and aquatic turtles, are considered sea turtles. This includes all 200 or so species of turtles, which have a compressed anatomy, a shell fused with ribs and vertebrae, and a pelvic girdle within the ribcage. Turtles can be aquatic, semi-aquatic, or mostly terrestrial, but tortoises are entirely terrestrial. Turtle feet look like tiny elephant feet, while other sea turtles have webbed feet. Finally, most tortoises have very convex or rounded carapaces, while sea turtles usually have more streamlined shells. Exceptions include box turtles and Sonoran mud turtles, which have more rounded shells.
Turtles are primarily diurnal, meaning they are awake during the day and sleep at night. However, many species are crepuscular, meaning they are most active around twilight. All tortoises are reclusive animals with calm behavior. They are known to move very slowly; the average speed of a tortoise is estimated to be around 0.2 to 0.5 kilometers per hour. Since they have no ears, tortoises rely less on hearing and more on sight and smell.
As cold-blooded animals, tortoises usually bask in the sun for one to two hours after dawn to absorb the heat of the day. They will then spend hours foraging for food. They tend to go out in the early morning and late afternoon, and they take a sand bath to keep pests out. Turtles rarely make any sounds except in mating or aggressive situations.
Turtles are found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. The species ranges from southern North America to southern South America, and also in some Pacific islands, Eurasia to Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean basin, and Madagascar. They generally prefer semi-arid climates, but are found everywhere from deserts to tropical rainforests, and they can thrive at sea level or in more mountainous regions.
Most tortoise species are herbivores, feeding primarily on leaves, flowers and some fruit. Some species that live in moist forest environments are more opportunistic, consuming limited amounts of animal matter as needed.
For more information on tortoise diets, be sure to read our full guide "What Do Tortoises Eat?" 20+ What They Eat. "
Predators and Threats
Human activity poses the greatest threat to tortoises around the world. In particular, turtles are hunted for their oil and meat. Their habitat is often cleared for agriculture and other developments. In many parts of the world where they live, the introduction of exotic animals, including mice, pigs and goats, has negatively affected their populations. Tortoises have no natural enemies, so introducing exotic species can be very harmful.
Reproduction, Babies and Longevity
Most turtle species mate year-round. To initiate the mating process, the male hits the female's shell with his own and may bite her leg. Mating is tricky due to the convex shell, but the male balances himself precariously to make it happen.
Female turtles dig nests with their hind legs. They lay eggs at night and cover the nests with dirt, sand and organic material. Incubation takes an average of 100 to 160 days and the eggs are left unattended. Fully formed hatchlings crack open ping pong-ball-sized eggs with their egg teeth, and then carve their way to the water's surface. They hatch with embryonic oocysts that provide nutrition for the first three to seven days. Baby tortoises travel to their mother's burrow, where they are protected for about 80 days before they become independent.
Tortoises are the longest-lived land animals on Earth. Their average lifespan is between 80 and 150 years. Several examples of long-lived turtles have been found in historical records. One of the most famous explorers, Tui Malila was gifted to the people of Tonga by explorer James Cook in 1777 and died in 1965 at the age of 188.
Tortoise populations vary by species and region. Several species are listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, including the radiated tortoise, Madagascar tortoise, and spider tortoise. Some, including the geometric turtle, are listed as endangered. Several species are also classified as vulnerable, including the Galapagos giant tortoise, the Aldabra giant tortoise, and the desert tortoise.
turtle as a pet
Due to their laid-back demeanor, not to mention their poised demeanor and adorable wrinkled faces, tortoises are a favorite of pet owners worldwide.
That said, some species are more popular than others in this regard. They include Egyptian, Greek, Hermann, Leopard, Pancake, and Red-footed tortoises.
You will have to consider the space they will need, shelter from cold weather, heating, vitamin supplements and veterinary care.
Diet is of course another very important factor, and these reptiles will feed on bergamot, chickweed, endive, evening primrose, fuchsia, hollyhock, etc.
Vegetables such as broccoli, cucumbers, kale, kale, and bell peppers can be added in small amounts.
About 5% of the diet should consist of fruits they also prefer, and they may find apples, berries, grapes, pears, plums and melons enjoyable.
Roommate selection (if any) is very important. A male may quickly switch this calm demeanor to more aggressive or even violent behavior when another male is present.
top turtle species
- Galapagos tortoise – A member of the genus Chelonoidis , the Galapagos tortoise is found in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Venezuela and on Aldabra, an Indian Ocean island about 430 miles east of Tanzania. In the 16th century, their population size was estimated to be over 250,000; by the 1970s, it had dwindled to about 3,000. Since they have no natural enemies, human activity is thought to be almost entirely to blame. Through conservation efforts, thousands of captive hatchlings have been released back into the wild. By 2000, their number had grown to about 19,000.
- Indian Star Tortoise – The scientific name of the Indian Star Tortoise is Geochelone elegans and it is found in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This species averages about 10 inches long with a very convex shell. The Indian star tortoise is listed as endangered by the IUCN, and its main threat is the exotic pet trade.
- The leopard tortoise — whose scientific name is Stigmochelys pardalis — is found in the savannahs of East and South Africa — roughly from the Southern Cape to Sudan. The only member of the genus, the leopard tortoise thrives in grassland habitats, including arid and savannah regions. The animal is the fourth largest turtle species with an average length of 16 inches and an average weight of 29 pounds, most of which are yellow in color. Unlike many other large tortoises, the leopard tortoise is not endangered.
- Gopher tortoise – The gopher tortoise ( Gopherus polyphemus ) is native to the southeastern United States and is the only tortoise native to North America. They get their name because they dig gopher-like deep burrows that provide shelter for many other species.
- The African spiny turtle, Centrochelys sulcata, inhabits the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in Africa. They dig deep burrows to hide from the sun. The grass that grows around their burrows is fertilized by their droppings and provides food for the turtles.
- Radiated tortoise – The critically endangered tortoise Astrochelys radiata lives in the bramble forests and scrublands of Madagascar. Its smooth high domed shell is marked with yellow lines that radiate from the top in a beautiful pattern.
- Spider tortoise – The spider tortoise Pyxis arachnoides is the smallest tortoise in Madagascar, named for the spider web-like pattern on its shell. It is critically endangered. During the hot, dry season on the island, these tortoises go into hibernation.
- Desert tortoise – Gopherus agassizii, a large tortoise native to the Mojave Desert, spends up to 95 percent of its life underground. These ancient animals have lived in the Mojave Desert for millions of years—but they're pretty rare these days. Its conservation status is "vulnerable".
in the zoo
There are many examples of turtles in major zoos around the world. For example, the San Diego Zoo received its first Galapagos tortoises in 1928, and there are now 16 of them, including nine original members. Many zoos have Aldabra tortoises, including Zoo Atlanta. You can find examples of African spur turtles at the New England Zoo, and the Australia Zoo once housed Harriet, a giant tortoise brought to England by Darwin who lived to be 176 years old.
- Russian tortoise
- Sulcata tortoise
- red-footed turtle
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about the author
After a career providing opportunities for local communities to experience and create art, I enjoy having time to write about two of my favorite things – nature and animals. I spend half my life outside, usually with my husband and adorable 14 year old puppy. We enjoyed walking around the lake and taking photos of the animals we encountered including: otters, osprey, Canada geese, ducks and nesting bald eagles. I also enjoy reading, discovering books to add to my library, collecting and playing vinyl records, and listening to my son's music.
Turtle FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Are turtles herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores?
Tortoises are primarily herbivores, but some species may consume small amounts of animal matter.
To which kingdom does the tortoise belong?
Turtles belong to the animal kingdom.
What kind of turtle is it?
Turtles belong to the class of reptiles.
What phylum do tortoises belong to?
Tortoises belong to the phylum Chordate.
What family do turtles belong to?
Tortoises belong to the tortoise family.
What order do turtles belong to?
Turtles belong to the order Testis.
What type of mulch do turtles have?
Turtles are covered with scales.
What type of habitat do turtles live in?
Turtles live in sandy soil near water.
What is the turtle's main prey?
Turtles eat grass, weeds and green leafy vegetables.
Who are the turtle's natural enemies?
Natural enemies of tortoises include foxes, badgers, and coyotes.
How many babies does the turtle have?
The average number of pups for a tortoise is 5.
What interesting facts about turtles?
Turtles can live to be over 150 years old!
How long does a turtle live?
On average, tortoises can live between 80 and 150 years.
What is the difference between a tortoise and a tortoise?
All tortoises are tortoises, but all tortoises are not tortoises. Tortoises live only on land, and their limbs look like tiny elephant legs or clubs, while other sea turtles have webbed limbs. Their carapace, or upper shell, is often very convex or rounded, whereas other sea turtles have more streamlined shells.
Where does the turtle live?
Turtles mainly live in semi-arid regions, but they can be found everywhere from deserts to tropical rainforests. They are found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia.
How big is a turtle?
The largest tortoise species, the giant tortoise, has a shell up to 3.3 feet long. Galapagos giant tortoises can weigh up to 920 pounds. Many other turtle species are much smaller. The smallest Palop tortoises have an average shell length of just 4 to 6 inches.
Does the tortoise recognize its owner?
Turtles are very intelligent animals and are often kept as pets. Over time, they can become familiar with the actions, sounds and smells of their owners. They are able to learn that the person who has them is a source of food and security, so they become more trusting of a particular person over time.
How fast is the turtle?
Turtles can travel at speeds of 0.3 miles per hour.
How do turtles give birth?
The turtle lays eggs.
What is the difference between a sea turtle and a tortoise?
The main difference between sea turtles and tortoises is that sea turtles are aquatic, have streamlined shells, and have physiological adaptations for life in water. Tortoises are terrestrial and have domed shells, adapted to life on land.
Read about other differences here!
What is the difference between a snapping turtle and a turtle?
The key difference between snapping turtles and turtles is that snapping turtles are aquatic, omnivorous, and live only in the Americas. Tortoises are terrestrial, herbivorous and live all over the world.
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- San Diego Zoo, available here: https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/turtle-and-tortoise
- New World Encyclopedia, available here: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Tortoise
- National Geographic, available here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/12/shell-game–how-to-tell-a-turtle-from-a-tortoise/
- Encyclopedia Britannica, available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/tortoise
- Rainforest, available here: https://rainforests.mongabay.com/endangered/charts/reptiles-turtles.html