Turtle, tortoise and terrapin - what’s the difference?

All turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are reptiles. They all have scales,lay eggs, and are ectothermic.

Turtle: Spends most of its life in the water. Turtles tend to have webbed feet for swimming.

Tortoise: A land-dweller that eats low-growing shrubs, grasses, and even cactus. Tortoises do not have webbed feet. Their feet are round and stumpy for walking on land. Tortoises that live in hot, dry habitats use their strong legs to dig burrows. Then, when it’s too hot in the sun, they slip underground.

Terrapin: Spends its time both on land and in water, but it always lives near water, along rivers, ponds, and lakes. Terrapins are often found in brackish, swampy areas. The word terrapin comes from an Indian word meaning "a little turtle.”

Burmese Mountain Tortoise (Manouria emys emys)

Burmese Mountain Tortoise
Judith Wolfe

    Burmese Mountain Tortoise

Zoo collection includes: Four

Found in the wild: This tortoise is native to the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia. They are found in in Assam, Myanmar, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo.

See Them at the Central Park Zoo: On the beach in the Tropical Rain Forest.

What do they eat: Diet is very widely varied, consisting of minimal grasses but lots of clover, plantain, dandelions and other broadleaf weeds.  Vegetables, including greens, cactus, cauliflower, yams and squashes are preferred, but fruits and worms are also readily consumed.

Life span: No one really knows how old a tortoise can live, but some have been judged at over 150 years old.

Like other Asian turtles and tortoises, this species is severely threatened by over-harvesting and exploitation for the food and pet trade, compounded by habitat destruction.
Sponsored Links

Fun Facts: This tortoise is the largest inhabiting Asia, and the fourth largest in the world. It has also been called the six-footed (legged) tortoise due to the very large and pointed tubercular scales on the rear thighs.

Red-footed Tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria)

Red-footed Tortoise
Judith Wolfe

           Red-footed Tortoise

Zoo collection includes: One

Found in the wild: South America, Africa, Asia, and on the Galápagos and Seychelles island groups.

See Them at the Central Park Zoo: On the beach in the Tropical Rain Forest.

Description: Male red-footed tortoises may grow up to 16 inches long, with females averaging a slightly smaller size. These land-based turtles have yellow head scales and a yellow bar behind their eyes. The shell, or carapace, is black with a small colored area on each scute. Primarily their skin is black but is patched on the head and legs with orange, yellow, and red.

What do they eat:  Grasses, succulents, fallen fruits, and other vegetation.

Life span: Up to 50 years, possibly longer.

Threats: In every country in its range, the biggest threat to the survival of redfoot tortoises is overhunting by man. Another threat facing redfoot populations is the omnipresent habitat loss and disturbance.

Fun Facts: The Red-footed tortoise is known in Brazil as Jabuti and known is Venezuela as Morrocoy. Interestingly, tortoises are considered "fish" by the Catholic Church and during holy week, redfoots are consumed in huge numbers.

Pig-nosed Turtle (Carettochelyidae)

Pig-nosed Turtle
Judith Wolfe

              Pig-nosed Turtle

Zoo collection includes: One

Found in the wild: Northern Australia, southern Papua New Guinea

See Them at the Central Park Zoo: In the tank right before you enter the Tisch Children's Zoo.

Description: One look at its fleshy snout and big nostrils, and you can see where the pig-nosed turtle got its name.  But this freshwater turtle has a number of other unique body features.  Its front limbs have undersized claws and are shaped like paddles - much like those of sea turtles.  This means that the pig-nosed turtle rows through the water by moving its forelimbs in unison (as do marine turtles), rather than swimming like other freshwater turtles.  And here's another interesting physical feature:  although the turtle's upper shell is covered by a layer of skin, it's not a softshell turtle.

What do they eat: Pig-nose turtles are opportunistic omnivores, with herbivorous tendencies. Their principal food is the fruits of shoreline trees, although they also eat their leaves and flowers as well as algae and other submergent plants. Animal foods include insect larvae, mollusks, and crustaceans. Fish and mammals are also eaten, but probably as carrion.

Threats: Threatened

Fun Facts: The pig-nosed turtle is sometimes known as the Fly River turtle, named after one body of water in New Guinea where it's commonly found.


Share or Bookmark

+ Sponsored Links

+ Events Calendar

+ Sponsored Links

+ Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in Central Park

Take a tour of Central
Park and go sightseeing
in New York City!

+ Sponsored Links

+ Search for Hotels

Top of Page Header Photo: © Mary Schwalm 2017
Copyright © 2004 - 2017 Greensward Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
Recommended Article
Red Panda

Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) Zoo collection includes: A young female named Amaya and a male named Biru. Red pandas ... read more ›