How Long Do Turtles and Tortoises Live?
Turtles and tortoises are both part of the reptile group known as chelonians. While the words turtle and tortoise are often used interchangeably, turtles most often refers to a species living on land and water, while tortoises live only on land.
Both turtles and tortoises are one of the longest-living species that can be kept as a pet. Keeping a turtle as a pet requires a considerable time commitment in order to provide appropriate care throughout their life. But with this care and commitment, they can truly be lifelong companions.
Lifespan of Turtles
The average lifespan of a turtle or tortoise is highly dependent on the species. Some species may only live 10 to 20 years in captivity, while others can live up to 150 years. In general, most turtle and tortoise species can live well into their 50s if provided appropriate care.
Most turtles and tortoises should ideally live much longer in captivity than in the wild. In the wild, they must find their own food in addition to evading predators, and they lack routine veterinary care. However, when kept as pets, turtles and tortoises are typically difficult to care for. Improper environment and nutrient-deficient diet often result in sick, debilitated turtles with extremely short lifespans. It is important to research each species and work closely with a reptile veterinarian to meet their specific needs.
Aquatic turtles will commonly live 20-30 years in captivity, but many can live much longer. Tortoises are more well-known for their longevity—with some estimated to live 100 to 150 years. Below are some commonly kept turtle and tortoise species and their approximate lifespans:
Box turtle: 20-50 years
Red-eared slider: 15-30 years
Map turtle: 15-25 years
Painted turtle: 25-50 years
Leopard tortoise: 100 years or more
Greek tortoise: 100 years or more
Hermann’s tortoise: 70-100 years
Sulcata tortoise: 30-50 years commonly, up to 120 years
Horsfield’s (Russian) tortoise: 50-100 years
Spiny softshell turtle: up to 50 years
Alligator snapping turtle: 20-70 years
Mud turtle: 10-15 years
Mediterranean tortoise: 50-100 years
Egyptian tortoise: 70-100 years
Red footed tortoise 25-50 years
Mata mata turtle: 40-75 years
Reeves turtle: up to 20 years
Spotted turtle: Over 100 years possible
Sexual maturity typically depends on a turtle’s size and not as much their age. All turtles will grow at different rates depending on their quality of care and availability of food. A common pet turtle, the red-eared slider, may not be sexually mature until the male’s shell reaches 4 inches and the female’s shell reaches 6-7 inches. This can take anywhere from 2-7 years based on general care provided and quality of food.
Most often, turtles and tortoises will be sexually mature by 10 years old. In general, turtles and tortoises will lay at least one clutch of eggs per year, usually in the spring and early summer—although some species may have multiple clutches throughout the year. Each female turtle may lay anywhere from 1 to 25 eggs, which take a couple of months to mature before hatching. In some species, the sex of the hatchling is determined by the temperature of the egg during incubation.
What Makes Some Turtles Live Longer Than Others?
Larger species of turtles and tortoises usually outlive their smaller counterparts. However, even smaller turtles can live 15 to 25 years, and are considered a long-term commitment for pet parents.
Genetics can play a role in turtle and tortoise longevity, since they can have cancer and other diseases that shorten their lifespan. However, improper care is much more likely to cause problems with captive turtles and tortoises. Each species has specific needs, such as:
Temperature and humidity
UV light exposure
When researching different species, you’ll notice they come from a variety of environments. Some animals are true desert creatures, others are found in humid zones, and still others live their entire life in water. These differences can help direct pet parents toward a pet best suited for their living situation. Desert tortoises such as the Sulcata may do well living outside in hot areas of the country, like the Southwest, but they would require an indoor habitat in the Midwest.
Turtles and tortoises in captivity often succumb to care-related illnesses. They frequently have vitamin A and calcium deficiencies due to poor diet and improper lighting. They can easily acquire abscesses and parasites in captivity, in addition to viral and bacterial infections.
Captive turtles and tortoises are also frequent victims of shell damage—most often because of a bite from the family dog. It’s imperative to separate your turtle or tortoise from dogs or cats that could attack them, as well as quarantining any new reptiles to prevent spread of disease.
How to Improve Your Turtle's Lifespan
Fortunately, with proper research, commitment, and an established relationship with a veterinarian, turtles and tortoises can make great family pets. Many zoos and wildlife sanctuaries are overcrowded with relinquished turtles and tortoises, so always check these places when looking to adopt. They will likely be able to help establish proper care of your turtle or tortoise as well! Below are some important aspects of turtle and tortoise care:
Most tortoises are herbivores, requiring a multitude of grass and grass hays, in addition to greens such as romaine lettuce, collard greens, mustard greens, and dandelion greens. They should also be offered vegetables like green beans, zucchini, and squash. Commercially available pellets may be provided but they should not be the primary diet staple, as they can lead to kidney issues in tortoises.
Most turtles are omnivores, eating plants and animal protein. Pellets may also be provided to these species, but only less than 25% of their overall dietary intake.
Turtles and tortoises both enjoy occasional fruit, but it should only be offered as a special treat and not more than 5% of their diet. Some favorites include mango, papaya, banana, cantaloupe, strawberries, and watermelon.
All captive turtles and tortoises require calcium supplementation. Work with your veterinarian to determine the best product for your pet.
Tortoises require shelter and large pens. They typically do best when kept outdoors, due to their large space requirement. Tortoises cannot swim, so they should not have access to ponds or other deep water. They should have fresh, clean water daily to drink and soak. They can be escape artists, burrowing under fences, so caution must be taken when building their pen.
Aquatic and semiaquatic turtles require large areas to swim, bask, and hunt. Tank water quality is of primary importance, as they spend most of their time there. Good filtration, frequent water changes, cleaning, and water testing are all important to the aquatic and semiaquatic turtle’s longevity. Unclean water can lead to shell erosion, ulceration, dermatitis, infection, and death.
All species require specific daytime, nighttime, and basking temperatures that should be frequently monitored and adjusted as needed. Aquatic species water temperatures are typically in the 75-85°F range.
Ultraviolet lighting is crucial for the health of most reptiles, including turtles and tortoises, because it allows proper calcium metabolism.
All turtle and tortoise species require at least one veterinary exam per year for a full physical exam, weight check, husbandry review, and general health assessment. Fecal samples should be checked more often for signs of parasites. As turtles and tortoises age, routine bloodwork can help determine internal organ function and other signs of disease.
All turtles and tortoises benefit from the opportunity to forage—searching, digging, or rooting for their favorite foods, treats, and toys. Foraging can help prevent boredom in captive turtles and tortoises and is most successful when mimicking a natural behavior.
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