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Turtles – How They Differ From Tortoises?

tortoise-walking-in-the-desert image
Tortoises live on land, in deserts, grasslands and forests.

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a tortoise and a turtle? Both animals are reptiles; both lay eggs and both have hard, bony shells. Tortoises live on land, in deserts, grasslands and forests. Turtles have webbed feet and live in rivers, lakes or even the ocean. They only leave the water to lay their eggs. A terrapin is a turtle that spends time both in and out of the water. It always lives close to water, though, and can be found in swamps and wetlands.

Turtles Facts for Kids

  • Turtles carry their homes on backs.
  • They’ve lived since dinosaur times.
  • Slow on land, fast in water.
  • Turtles lay eggs on land.
  • Can’t crawl out of their shells.
  • They eat plants and meat.
  • Some turtles live over 100 years.
  • Flippers help sea turtles swim.
  • Most can hide heads inside shells.
  • Baby turtles hatch from eggs.


Both turtles and tortoises belong to the Chelonia order, though they exhibit several distinct features that might fascinate children. Tortoises are typically larger with a heavier, dome-shaped shell, in contrast to turtles that possess a flatter, more streamlined shell.

Another important difference lies in their habitat and physical adaptations; tortoises are terrestrial creatures with stout, elephantine feet, unlike turtles who are equipped with webbed feet or flippers, an adaptation for swimming, especially noted among marine species.

It’s also intriguing to know that tortoises often outlive turtles, with certain tortoise species boasting lifespans exceeding 150 years.


Turtles, members of the reptile family, are captivating creatures with over 200 million years of existence, sharing traits with snakes, lizards, and crocodiles. They are cold-blooded like all reptiles, allowing their body temperature to fluctuate with their environment, and possess scales on their bodies, a common feature among their reptile counterparts.

What sets turtles apart is their distinctive hard shell, composed of approximately 60 different bones, providing a protective barrier against predators. Regardless of their habitat, whether terrestrial or aquatic, these remarkable creatures are integral to the balance of our ecosystem.

Sea turtles

Sea turtles, captivating marine creatures that have survived over 110 million years, even outlasting dinosaurs, are a spectacle of the ocean world. These fascinating creatures are categorized into seven distinct species, namely, the Green, Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, Flatback, and Leatherback, each boasting its unique features and characteristics.

As an example, the Leatherback is the largest among them, with an impressive size that can reach up to 7 feet and weight of 2,000 pounds. Unlike land turtles that can retract their head and limbs into their shells, sea turtles are unable to perform this action.

Their bodies are uniquely adapted for marine life, equipped with streamlined shells and long flippers that facilitate smooth gliding through the water. An intriguing characteristic of the female sea turtles is their innate ability to return to their birthplace beach for laying eggs. These gentle, ancient mariners captivate observers with their unique characteristics and behaviors.

Hibernation (brumation)

Turtles, intriguing creatures with compelling behaviors, exhibit a survival strategy known as brumation, akin to hibernation, particularly during the harsh winter months. This deep slumber allows them to conserve energy, yet unlike hibernation where animals are completely unconscious, turtles remain semi-alert to their environment.

In preparation, they burrow themselves into mud or leaves at the base of ponds or tunnel into the earth, effectively slowing their metabolism and bodily functions to an almost halted state. Remarkably, they can sustain themselves for several months without food intake and possess the unique ability to absorb oxygen through their skin from the surrounding water.

This incredible survival mechanism has been key to the turtles’ thriving existence on Earth for over 200 million years.


Renowned for their distinctive, hard shells, turtles are a unique species that possess a shell made up of almost 60 bones, inclusive of the spine and ribs, serving as an integral part of their skeleton. The shell, which features an upper section known as the carapace and a lower section referred to as the plastron, expands as the turtle matures and provides a protective shield against potential predators. Contrary to animated depictions, turtles cannot detach from their shells as they are permanently affixed to their bodies – an amusing fact often shared with children. Each turtle’s shell is as unique as a human fingerprint, displaying a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.

Endangered species

Endangered turtles, constituting a significant part of our ecosystem, are under threat, with more than half of the world’s turtle and tortoise species at risk of extinction due to multiple threats such as habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and illegal wildlife trade.

Take, for example, the Leatherback Sea Turtle, the world’s largest turtle species, which is critically endangered because of plastic pollution and getting ensnared in fishing gear. The Hawksbill Sea Turtle, another critically endangered species, is increasingly targeted for its uniquely patterned shell.

These alarming facts emphasize the immediate and urgent need to protect and preserve these amazing creatures and their habitats, ensuring their survival for future generations.

Marine life

Marine turtles, famous for their longevity, with certain species living for over a century, are captivating components of the oceanic ecosystem, playing a pivotal role in its preservation. They are recognized for their remarkable migratory capabilities, with some species traversing thousands of miles to nest.

Existing as omnivores, the diet of marine turtles encompasses a variety of marine life, including jellyfish, seaweed, crabs, shrimp, and sponges. Unfortunately, these majestic creatures are endangered, threatened by habitat destruction, pollution, and illicit hunting.

Therefore, it becomes incumbent upon us to safeguard these gentle giants, given their essential contribution to the equilibrium of marine life.

Nesting beaches

Turtles, intriguing creatures with distinct nesting behaviors, exhibit a remarkable trait wherein most sea turtle species return to their birthplace to lay their eggs.

This practice involves remarkable journeys spanning across thousands of miles, navigated by the guidance of the Earth’s magnetic field, to reach these particular nesting beaches. Upon arrival, the female turtles meticulously dig a hole in the sand, lay their eggs, and subsequently cover them before returning to the sea.

Left in solitude, the eggs incubate in the sand’s warmth, a significant process in the turtle’s life cycle. Thus, the preservation of these nesting beaches is paramount for the survival of these captivating creatures.


Herpetology, a fascinating field of study focusing on reptiles and amphibians, provides intriguing knowledge about turtles that piques the interest of kids. Turtles, being one of the most ancient and primitive groups of reptiles, have existed for over 200 million years.

Their survival for such an extended period is attributed to their distinct hard shell, acting as a protective shield against predators. A striking feature of turtles is their remarkable longevity, with certain species known to surpass a lifespan of a hundred years.

This group of creatures is incredibly diverse, consisting of 300 different species found in various parts of the world – from tropical rainforests to arid deserts and vast oceans. Each species boasts of unique adaptations to their respective habitats, making them an interesting subject of study within the realm of herpetology.

Loggerhead turtle

The Loggerhead turtle, a species renowned for its large head that can span up to 10 inches in width, is an intriguing creature that would captivate the interest of children. Known as the world’s largest hard-shelled turtles, they can reach a staggering weight of up to 400 pounds.

These turtles, which reside primarily in warmer waters, are predominantly carnivorous, with their robust jaws enabling them to consume hard-shelled organisms such as conchs and whelks. Loggerheads are notable for their extensive migrations, covering thousands of miles to move between their feeding and nesting areas.

Intriguingly, female Loggerhead turtles demonstrate a unique instinct to return to their birthplace, the very same beach, to lay their eggs. Despite their impressive size and strength, these magnificent creatures are unfortunately classified as threatened species, with their survival being jeopardized by factors such as habitat loss, entanglement in fishing nets, and pollution.

Tortoise Walking in the Desert Image - Science for Kids All About Turtles
Want to know all about turtles? Well, tortoises live on land, in deserts, grasslands and forests.

Whatever you call them, turtles are interesting animals. Their bony shell is covered in scales. It is attached to their backbone and can’t be removed. Some turtles can duck their head and limbs inside their shell for protection. Not all turtles can do this.

A Turtle Swimming Image
Turtles have webbed feet and live in rivers, lakes or even the ocean.

Fun Facts about Turtles for Kids

  • Turtles are omnivores. They eat fruit, plants, insects and other animals. Some turtles even eat poisonous jellyfish.
  • Sea turtles return to the same place every two or three years to lay their eggs. They migrate thousands of miles.
  • Turtles lay their soft eggs in the sand, dirt, or in grass. They dig holes and deposit the eggs. Some turtles lay only a few eggs. Some can lay over 1,000 at one time. Once the eggs are laid, the turtles move on, leaving the babies to fend for themselves.
  • Turtles can’t move very fast. People catch them for pets and other animals hunt them.
  • Turtles are ectothermic. They can’t control their own body temperature.
Terrapin on Land Image
A terrapin is a turtle that spends time both in and out of the water. It always lives close to water, though, and can be found in swamps and wetlands.

Turtle Vocabulary

  1. Webbed: skin between each bone or joint
  2. Swamp: muddy wetland
  3. Omnivore: eats both plants and animals
  4. Migrate: move temporarily
  5. Ectothermic: can’t control body temperature
Turtle Hiding in its Shell Image
Some turtles can duck their head and limbs inside their shell for protection. Not all turtles can do this.

Learn More All about Turtles

Watch this amazing video documentary about them:

A nature film about turtles and tortoises.

Turtle Q&A

Question: How long do turtles and tortoises live?

Answer: Turtles and tortoises can live from 40 to 100 years.


Question: Do turtles make good pets?

Answer: They sometimes carry diseases and they don’t like to be handled like a dog or cat, but they can make good pets with the right care.


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