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Unsure about the differences between turtles, terrapins, and tortoises? This turtle primer will quickly get you up to speed!

A Quick Turtle Primer

Chelonia comes from the Greek word χελών meaning ‘turtle’ or ‘tortoise.’ Turtles are also reptiles belonging to the order Testudines (from the Latin testudo).

Basically, the word “chelonian” refers to a type of reptile that has a special bony shell derived from their ribs. This bony shell acts as a form of protection. A shield, if you will. It is used as a catchall phrase for turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

Differences Between Turtles, Tortoises, And Terrapins

In many languages around the world, turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are all lumped together into a single word. An example of this is the Spanish word Tortuga.

In English however, it usually varies by region. Whereas in some places in North America, all chelonians can be referred to as ‘turtles’, whereas, in British-English, turtles refer to sea-swimming turtles, as opposed to their closely-related land-dwelling cousins, tortoises.

For the sake of simplicity, it’s best to break down the three different modern classifications of chelonians according to standard definitions.


Often equipped with webbed-feet or flippers, turtles spend the bulk of their lives in water. Sea-turtles will generally only come out to lay eggs. Freshwater turtles, however, will come out to lay (bask) in the sun.


These are land-dwelling creatures with knobby-looking legs good for walking on sand and dirt. They also like to bury underground when it gets too hot outside.


Very closely related to freshwater turtles, these freshwater creatures split their time between the water and land. They also do not have webbed feet or flippers. Moreover, they often have hard-shells and can be found in ponds and in forests.

Chelonians In Space

In 1968 the Soviets sent up Zond 5, a space probe tasked with orbiting the moon. It also carried a pair of tortoises who would arrive safely and securely back on planet Earth. Interestingly,  the effects of space would make them lose about 10% of their body-weight.

Types Of Turtles In The World Today

There are more than 320 turtle species alive in the world today. However, many of these species are listed as threatened, endangered and nearly extinct.

The bulk of these species live in and around South Asia and Southeast North America. Chelonians can be found on every continent in the world today, with the exception of Antarctica.

How Long Turtles Have Been Around

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Turtles have been around for a long time. More than 220 million years to be a little more precise. The first turtle fossils date back to the Triassic Period, an era in which the dinosaurs just began to arrive!

Sea turtles, on the other hand, have been around for some 120 million years, with the oldest fossil being uncovered in Villa de Leyva, Columbia, and not looking much different from sea turtles that live today.

Turtles have not only been around longer than snakes, crocodiles, and lizards but mammals as well. In fact, the Hawaiian word for sea turtle is honu, which represents wisdom and long-life.

The first turtles are thought to possess teeth and be unable to fully retract their heads into their shells, but other than that, they are extremely similar to modern-day chelonians.

You don’t have the historical staying power of the turtle, without also being able to live a long life! The Galapagos tortoise, for instance, is considered middle-aged at 80 and quite often lives to more than 150 years old. When it comes to keeping turtles as pets, when kept healthy they very often can live up to 30 to 40 years old.

Turtles Leaving Their Shells

This is a widely-believed myth, but turtles are inseparable from their shells. Literally. You see, a chelonians shell is comprised of more than 80 bones and is held together by plates called scutes. These scutes are made up of keratin, which is the same stuff that makes up your finger and toenails.

Furthermore, a turtle’s shell actually has nerve endings in it, which means that if you touch it, he or she can feel it! As turtles, tortoises and terrapins grow larger their shell will molt and expand, shedding the old keratin scutes plate by plate.

Various Sizes Of Turtles

The Leatherback sea turtle is the largest sea-faring chelonian and can reach sizes of 4.5 to 5.2 feet (140 to 160 cm) long and weigh as much as 1,500 lbs (680 kg)! The Galapagos tortoise, the largest land-dwelling chelonian, can grow up to a staggering 6 feet (183 cm) in length and weigh as much as 570 lbs. (260 kg)

The Speckled Cape tortoise holds the record for smallest chelonian, coming in at a diminutive 3.9 inches (8 cm) length and a husky 5 ounces (142 grams).

How Social Turtles Are

Although oftentimes owners will find their pet turtles stacked on top of each other, turtles in the wild are rather ambivalent and sometimes even hostile to each other. They don’t typically interact or socialize well with others, and prefer solitude and just doing their own thing.

That said, they are not always so quiet! Different types of turtle species are known to make very different noises; such as humming like a motor, to belching like a human to even clucking like a chicken!

Turtles As Pets

Provided you have created a suitable habitat for your chelonian, turtles can live and thrive as pets.

Unfortunately, many people around the world are a bit ignorant about maintaining suitable conditions for their pet turtle to live in.

Check out the rest of my site to find out more about what exactly you need to build and maintain the perfect turtle habitat.

As always, knowledge is the key to ensuring that your pet turtle will not only be content, but healthy in his or her home.

About the Author

Hi, I'm J and I'm the chelonian-obsessed creator of this website. Feel free to leave a comment below, as unlike a snapping turtle, I promise I won't bite!

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