Turtle, Tortoise and Terrapin – all three are reptiles and dependent on their surroundings to stay warm. They have shells and scales, and food habits aren’t very dissimilar, not to mention their appearances. Then, what is it that makes us take them as different creatures?

Both tortoise and terrapins are some kinds of turtles. Turtles are aquatic while terrapins are semi-aquatic and tortoises are terrestrial reptiles. Although we may see they have kindred traits, considerable differences exist in their looks, behaviors, lifestyles, and overall suitability as pets.

In this comparative guide, we’ll explore the key factors that set all these three Testudinidae members apart from each other.

Turtle Vs Tortoise Vs Terrapin: A Detailed Discussion

Some of the information here might not match with what many sources provide because our discussion is mostly about the species that are widely adopted as pets by people around the world.

Lifespan10 to 100 Years50 to 100 Years20 to 30 Years
Size10 to 12 Inches10 to 16 InchesUp to 9 Inches
CharacteristicsShy and HarmlessQuiet and InquisitiveCalm and Protective
DietLeafy Greens and Commercial Turtle FoodsFresh Vegetables and Fruits (containing phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin D3)Fish, Meat, and Leafy Vegetables
HousingTank Equipped with Filtration and Basking ZoneOutdoor EnclosureTank Equipped with Filtration and Basking Zone with Reptile Light
Popular VarietiesRed-Eared Slider, Painted Turtle, Eastern Box Turtle, etc.Red-Footed Tortoise, Russian Tortoise, Leopard Tortoise, etc.Diamondback Terrapin

With this quick understanding of their differences, you may want to know about them more, and we’ll discuss them in a more elaborate manner in the next sections.


These aquatic beauties are adapted exclusively for a life in the water. They contribute to the freshwater and marine atmosphere. In modern times, we love to have them more as a pet than just a wild creature living under the water.

Appearance, Lifespan, Size, and Variety

Turtles have flat and streamlined shells that allow them to swim without dragging force. Their legs look like flippers to make swimming a convenient job, but this particular shape of legs makes their movement around on the dry lands very difficult, especially during the nesting season.

Musk and mud turtles tend to be the smallest of all pet turtles and grow up to six inches long. Other species including red eared or yellow bellied sliders grow up to 10 – 12 inches long.

Some of them may grow large as part of their biological adaptation process which allows them survive in cool water temperatures. Those who want these larger types as pets should look for large enclosures.


Turtles grow slowly but usually enjoy a long lifespan. Here is a list of the most popular pet turtles, their average lifespans, and lengths.

  • Red-Eared Slider: 25 – 35 years (8 to 10 Inches)
  • Map Turtle: 15 – 25 Years (Female: 6 to 10 Inches, Male: 4 to 6 Inches)
  • Wood Turtle: 40 – 55 Years (5 to 9 Inches)
  • Eastern Box Turtle: 50+ Years (4 to 8 inches)
  • Western Painted Turtle: 50+ Years (7 to 8 inches)
  • Painted Turtle: 25 – 30 Years (5.5 to 6 inches)


Behavior and Personality

Since turtles are one of the cutest aquatic creatures, you’ll find them shy, harmless, and lovely. With consistent interactions and attention, you can draw their attention during feeding time. Even, taming them isn’t very hard. Map turtles are the finest example of sociable types.

Accommodation and Suitability as Pets

You want a deep and large tank equipped with a good filtration and lighting system. It is a must for their detailed housing to have access to UVB and UVA light because absence of those lights may cause them soft shell syndrome (metabolic bone disease).

Making a perfect accommodation for turtles can be difficult as you must maintain appropriate water quality and ambient temperature settings. You don’t need to pay a lot of attention, but the requirements should be kept fulfilled all the time.

Turtles are known to have been great hosts of Salmonella bacteria that contaminates food and causes diarrhea. So, having them around your kids may not be a good idea, especially your kids are too young to understand the importance of hygiene.

Species like cooters, red-eared sliders, musk, and mud turtles are hardier but more suitable as pets for beginners than others. Painted and map turtles are not as hardy as the above ones. Snapping and softshell species are not famous for their being good as pets due to their aggressive nature.

Food Habit

Aquatic turtles are usually omnivores, but their food habits might change with time. Fresh leafy greens, such as dandelion greens, parsley, and romaine lettuce are ideal as everyday meals. You can feed them frozen shrimps or chopped apples once a while.

Some turtle varieties may love insects, but you should be aware of regular cleaning if you really want to feed your pet little insects. Also, try to gather their favorite plants for these should be their primary sources of food.

Health Problems

Some parasites, such as internal organisms and roundworms can be found in pet turtles, but you may not see any obvious symptom. Another common ailment is Vitamin A deficiency may result in abscesses in the pet’s ears. You may see swelling behind its eye and pus that resembles cottage cheese.

Turtles may suffer from different respiratory infections with symptoms like difficulty breathing, nasal discharge, lethargy, and wheezing. “Shell rot” is a considerable disease that may be triggered by an injury, infection, and stress.


These land-dwelling creatures are usually bigger than most of the varieties of turtles or terrapins, and several of their species are becoming popular as pets.

Appearance, Lifespan, Size, and Variety

The shell of a tortoise is important when you consider its appearance. A soft shell tortoise has a flat and soft shell while a snapping turtle has a shell with a pattern of ridges resembling spikes.

Tortoises with a helmet-shaped dome are either painted or benign box varieties. Painted ones come with red markings on their necks, and on the shell’s top and bottom. Having a domed shell is the most recognizable feature of a tortoise.

Following is the list of the most popular and adorable tortoises that you may want to keep as a pet. Their average lifespan and sizes have also been stated.

  • Russian Tortoise: Up to 40 Years (5 to 10 Inches)
  • Hermann’s Tortoise: 50+ Years (5 to 11 Inches)
  • Indian Star Tortoise: 30 – 50 Years (5 to 8 Inches)
  • Kleinmann’s Tortoise: 70 – 100 Years (3 to 5.7 Inches)
  • Leopard Tortoise: Up to 100 Years (10 to 18 Inches)
  • Marginated Tortoise: Up to 100 Years (About 14 Inches)
  • Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoise: Up to 100 Years (About 8 Inches)
  • Pancake Tortoise: 35+ Years (6 to 7 Inches)
  • Red-footed Tortoise: 50 – 90 Years (Male: 13.5 Inches, Female: 11.25 Inches)
  • Sulcata Tortoise: Up to 70 years (24 to 30 Inches)

Indian Star Tortoise

Behavior and Personality

In general, tortoises are hearty, quiet, and shy. Some tortoises seem to be reclusive and inquisitive. Some species show some charismatic traits with a touch of personality.

However, two males when kept together may act otherwise. Two male tortoises might get aggressive and hostile toward each other. Even, some attacks and then injuries are not strange.

Accommodation and Suitability as Pets

Being fairly large, some species may require large outdoor enclosures with mild climate, UVA/UVB exposure, and surroundings including no sharp items, inedible objects, and poisonous plants around. Some of these pets may live well in indoor settings with cool temperatures. The larger ones are best kept in an outdoor atmosphere.

Species with the need for hibernation may demand special conditions. As in a box inside the home where there are no risks of temperature fluctuations, floods, external attacks from other animals. Burrowing tortoises should be kept inside fences with their ends buried deep into the ground.

A roofed pen is good for tortoises that love to climb. However, make sure that there are not so many steps for the pet to climb as such activities often require them to tip onto the backs, one of the many things you want that pet to avoid.

The lifespan and size of tortoises are the two most challenging aspects that tortoise lovers have to face. Although these creatures love to have touches, one should handle them gently but never too intensively. Their long lifespan invites a great concern for the owners who may not live as long as their pets may do.

Food Habit

Fresh vegetables are ideal diets for tortoises. Bell pepper, dandelions, collard greens, cauliflower, kale, squash, sweet potato, etc. make up about 80% of the diet. Supplements that contain calcium, vitamin D3, and phosphorus are also good for their shells.

Fruits like grapes, melon, and apples are also healthy, but you shouldn’t feed them these fruits more frequently than once in every fourth meal. Some commercial foods are also available when you can’t bring them the organic ones.

Health Problems

Respiratory infections are common in these pets, especially the ones raised without care or in the wild. Those reptiles usually become lethargic. Sometimes, they may lose weight or exhibit excess mucus around nasal passages or mouth. Wheezing is a common sign, and some species may stop eating.

Diets without the required amount of calcium may cause some tortoises to become susceptible to different health issues including metabolic bone disease. An affected tortoise may not grow as quickly as it should. Older ones may experience bone fractures and difficulty walking.


Terrapins are basically turtles with some distinguishable traits. One of them is that they can live in swampy water or on land. They share some characteristics with both turtles and tortoises.

Appearance, Lifespan, Size, and Variety

Terrapins are known for their bright colors in a highly accentuated fashion. With bright yellow or green patterns on the body and shell, a terrapin looks more refreshing than both tortoises and turtles.

The feet of a terrapin are webbed between its toes which allow it to swim. With sharp and long claws, it can climb too. Male terrapins can become extremely good climbers with time as they grow beautiful claws.

Some aquatic turtles that live in the freshwater have feet that look much like those of terrapins. The shell of a terrapin is flatter than that of a tortoise, but it is more domed than that of a turtle.

Let’s look at the list of common terrapin varieties along with their size and lifespan.

  • Diamondback Terrapin: 25 – 40 Years (5.5 to 11 Inches)
  • Painted Terrapin: 40 – 80 Years (12 to 28 Inches)
  • Red-Eared Terrapin: 20 – 30 Years (Up to 12 Inches)
  • Yellow-Bellied Terrapin: Up to 25 Years (5 to 13 Inches)


Behavior and Personality

Like many reptiles, terrapins don’t make noises as they remain calm throughout the most of their lifespan. Sometimes, external irritations or the handlers’ behaviors may cause them to show some aggression, but that is nothing terrifying.

As soon as a terrapin senses a danger, it retracts into its shell and remains that way for a little while. Terrapins are good at coping with environmental changes. Those who buy them may have to wait for a day or two to get the pets to recognize them the first time. One should learn how to tame a terrapin as it may bite if not tamed properly.

Accommodation and Suitability as Pets

One of the prerequisites to taking care of a terrapin is to arrange for a basking zone that allows the pet to absorb warmth and get what it needs to cool down. Using a heat lamp is a common way for terrapin owners who should check the atmospheric temperatures once a day. The goal is to allow UVA light to enter the living zone.

Terrapins love to have a quick access to water that must be purified through a filtration system. The water should may contain nitrate and ammonia but only in a very small amount.

Food Habit

When it comes to feeding, terrapins are aggressive and quite messy at that. Their food habits are so diverse that you can have a long list of items to feed. They eat a lot of things, from earth worms and snails to pork and chicken. Raw meat in small chunks is an ideal choice of meal.

Some varieties live on fish, especially tuna and different types of oily fish. If you intend to feed the pet some plants, lettuce or spinach is good. A few other leafy vegetables are also okay. You can give them berries once a month.

Health Problems

As long as the shell of your terrapin feels smooth and its eyes look bright, you can leave your worries about its health. However, you may want to check its skin for blisters, and if you see some, it indicates an infection.

Shell rot causes great concerns for terrapin owners as this illness is often the result of an injury or fungal infection. It can be wet or dry depending on the humidity of a terrapin’s living environment. You may notice cracked or bleeding shell.

Respiratory diseases are also common in terrapins, and the common symptoms include a runny nose, eye infections, open-mouth and heavy breathing, poor appetite, etc. Another serious health issue is metabolic bone disease. Again, some varieties are more vulnerable to thiamine poisoning than others.

At The End,

Can you now tell a turtle from a tortoise or a terrapin from a turtle specifically? They are different by far, no matter how close their appearances or lifestyles may be.

You can be the proud handler of one or more of these pets only if you know and do what it keeps them healthy, safe, and satisfied. We hope this guide has helped you understand the differences and the similarities these species.

Let us know the story of your adorable turtle or tortoise or ask any question about these pets. We’ll try to come up with the most relevant answers. Good luck!

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