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What's the Difference Between Turtles and Tortoises?

Did you know that tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises? Most people use the term “turtle” to reference any reptile with a shell on its back, but there’s several differences between these two unique creatures.

World Turtle Day® is on May 23, and the Zoo is excited to raise awareness and share ways we all can enhance the conservation of turtles and tortoises. In order to help this animal, it’s important to know the difference between these shelled reptiles. 

We checked in with one of our zookeepers, Katie Gregory, to give us a rundown on how to distinguish the differences between turtles and tortoises.

  • Tortoises have more rounded and domed shells where turtles have thinner, more water-dynamic shells.  Turtle shells are more streamlined to aid in swimming.
  • One major key difference is that tortoises spend most of their time on land and turtles are adapted for life spent in water.
  • Tortoises have club-like forelegs and 'elephantine' hind legs. Because tortoise are often larger and heavier, there elephantine hind legs help them move around and carry the extra weight!
  • Turtles will have more flipper like legs, or webbed feet to make it easier to cruise through the water.

Want to learn more about Nashville Zoo’s turtles and tortoises and how you can help?! Be sure to visit the Zoo to celebrate World Turtle Day® on May 23 and talk to Katie and other keepers about these shelled reptiles!

Quiz yourself! Is it a turtle or tortoise?



Sulcata Tortoise



Spotted Turtle



Galapagos Tortoise



Red-footed Tortoise



Razorback Musk Turtle



Mata Mata Turtle

Posted by Nashville Zoo at 7:44 AM