While tortoises, turtles, and even terrapins for that matter, have numerous and obvious similarities, there are clearly some distinct differences. Perhaps the most notable are the environments in which they all live, and it was the challenge of these environments that evolved each of these ancient reptiles into separate groups and away from their common ancestor.
Even so, turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are all part of the same division of reptiles, called chelonians, and for the most part, the difference between a turtle and tortoise is more of a rough semantic category than a strict taxonomic separation. In a biological respect, a tortoise is a kind of a turtle, but not all turtles are tortoises as tortoises have their own taxonomic family, known as testudinidae. Sounds complicated, well it is a little so lets try and break it down a little further.
So, what is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?
'terrapin' refers to those animals that fall somewhere between a turtle and tortoise, because they live in swampy areas or begin life underwater and eventually move to dry land. Tortoises live primarily in arid regions, evolving a more effective way to store their own water supply and for walking on baking, sandy ground.
Turtles may live in freshwater, the ocean, or brackish ponds and marshland. Their front feet might be fins or merely webbed toes with streamlined back feet to help them swim. Turtles have flatter backs than tortoises, and may spend all or part of their lives underwater. They mate and lay eggs underwater or on the shore. Like tortoises, some turtles sun themselves on logs, rocks, or sandy banks. During cold weather, they burrow in mud and go into torpor, a state similar to hibernation. Sea turtles migrate great distances. They are more often omnivorous, eating plants, insects, and fish.
To conclude, a summary of differences between turtles and tortoises:
•Turtles primarily live in water (freshwater and oceans) and so have webbed front feet or flipper-like fins to aid swimming.
•Tortoises live almost exclusively on land, and so have normal feet without webbing, often with sharp claws for digging. They only enter water to drink or wash themselves off, and can in fact drown in strong currents. They can often be found in arid environments.
•Turtles tend to have flatter shells than tortoises, while tortoises have more of a domed shell.
•Turtles can be omnivorous, eating both plants and insects. Tortoises eat only plants, leaves and other vegetation making them herbivorous. They especially like moisture-rich vegetation during the height of summer.
•Turtles can migrate from one place to another, swimming across entire oceans; tortoises however, tend to stay in one area.
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