Turtle FAQs: What Kind of Turtle Do I Have and More

By PetMD Editorial on Feb. 19, 2016

By Joe Cortez

Often considered an interactive and intelligent companion, turtles can bring years of joy for those who are seeking a long-term pet that doesn't require a lot of space. However, many new turtle owners often find themselves asking a lot of questions about their shelled pets. Have you ever wondered where turtles come from? Moreover, do you know how to identify what kind of turtle you may have at home?

Whether you’re a first-time turtle owner or have cared for a bale of turtles in the past, there is still plenty to learn about these curious creatures. Here are some common questions and fun facts you need to know about turtles. 

What Are Turtles?

“Turtle” is a very large term that describes a number of reptiles that all have a protective shell. Some biologists believe turtles date all the way back to the Jurassic era, with the first turtles appearing over 157 million years ago.

“Turtles are reptiles that spend at least a portion of their life in water,” said Dr. Jen Quammen, veterinarian at Grants Lick Veterinary Hospital in Butler, Kentucky. “Turtles have no teeth but do have a beak, somewhat similar to a parrot.”

Widely known for their shells, this body part is not actually an extension of a turtle’s backbone. Instead, the shell is composed of two pieces: the carapace, which is the top of the shell, and the pastron at the bottom.

“The ribcage of the turtle is fused to the carapace,” Quammen said. “Turtles cannot be removed from their shell, although they can extend their legs, head and tail from their shell.” Although reptiles in this group all have the carapace in common, the word “turtle” is not necessarily considered a term that describes all animals in this group. Internationally, scientists often refer to reptiles in this group of animals as chelonians, which then breaks down to three different types: turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

What is the Difference Between a Tortoise and a Turtle?

While they may look and even act very similar to one another, turtles and tortoises are different animals with very distinct needs to thrive. The main difference between the two is that turtles need water to live and tortoises live on land and tend to keep to themselves. Turtles are often found around sources of water and, despite their aquatic nature, they do not breathe underwater in the same manner as a fish and require oxygen to live. Terrapins are in between the two, and spend their time alternating between swimming in the water and basking in the sun atop a log or rock.

“Turtles tend to have a more flattened shell to improve their swimming ability,” Quammen said. “Their feet are more likely to be webbed with long claws to aid in swimming.”

When it comes time to reproduce, turtles do not spawn in the water. Instead, turtles will lay their eggs on land to hatch naturally. Where a turtle lays their eggs depends on several factors, including their natural environment.

Although they share many physical similarities with a turtle, tortoises are different animals that require different levels of care. While turtles need a source of water to live, tortoises live their lives entirely on land. Often considered reclusive animals, tortoises are very slow movers with a top speed of five miles per hour on land, just faster than the average human walks.

“Tortoises have a more domed shape shell,” Quammen added. “Their shells are heavier and thicker and their legs are short and thick with short claws.”

How Many Species of Turtle Are There?

According to Quammen, there are over 250 species of turtles existing in the world, spread across 14 different families and living in various conditions around the world. As a whole, turtles can be found on nearly every continent, as well as in the oceans.

This is where the distinction of turtle, tortoise, and terrapin is very important among chelonians. Turtles are often considered to live the majority of their lives in the water, coming up only to breathe or lay their eggs. Tortoises are still considered among turtles, but spend their entire lives outside of the water and on the land. Terrapins, which are the most common turtles kept as pets, spend their lives alternating between the land and water, and enjoy swimming. Terrapins can often be found in freshwater sources across the United States and around the world.

What Kind of Turtle Do I Have?

There are three signs that can help you to determine what kind of turtle you have at home. The first sign to consider is the shell shape of your turtle. According to Quammen, those with smoother, flatter shells are often turtles, while those with domed, rough shells may be tortoises.

“Second, look at the foot shape and structure,” Quammen advises. “Are their feet webbed with long claws, or have short and sturdy legs?” Turtles will have webbed feet with longer claws in order to swim better, while tortoises will have shorter, thicker legs to help them navigate rough terrain.

Finally, once you have determined if you have a turtle or tortoise, look for the trademark signs of that particular species. Red-ear sliders have flashes of red where ears would typically be, while box turtles are noted for their tall shells that can clamp shut. Conversely, the red-footed tortoise earned its name for the red spots often found on its feet. For further clarification, ask a veterinarian for assistance.

What Eats Turtles?

In the wild, turtles face many natural predators that they would normally not face at home. Some animals that have been known to eat turtles include wild dogs, coyotes, birds, and alligators. Young turtles are the most at risk for being targeted as prey.

“Turtles can become prey of mammals, large birds such as eagles and other birds of prey, or other reptiles,” Quammen said. In addition, humans have traditionally hunted and consumed sea turtles throughout history. However, international laws prevent most parts of the world from using sea turtles for meat, as they are considered endangered species.

No matter what you call them—turtles, tortoises, or terrapins—turtles have a deep and rich history both in the wild and as pets. With some knowledge about these majestic creatures, a turtle can provide joy and companionship for years to come.

Image:  / Shutterstock

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