Tortoises, Turtles, and Terrapins, what are they? And what is the difference between tortoises terrapins and turtles? Well, some may think they are all the same animal, which at a quick glance may appear so, but in fact, they are completely different animals. They all, however, belong to the same Order of Testudines. This classifies them together as they all have a unique shell built into their skeleton which provides protection from physical harm. Their main difference is their habitat either land, sea or freshwater, and I will briefly explain some of the other differences. Let’s start off with what you may see here at Londolozi – the tortoise and terrapin.
What is the difference between tortoises, turtles and terrapins?
Tortoises are terrestrial animals and are often seen during the summer months. They can be easily identified by their domed shell (known as a carapace) which acts as protection and can be covered in horny shields. When threatened they will withdraw their heads directly back into the shell completely shielded by their legs. Because they require to carry themselves on land their legs are well developed, and their feet have claws. They have a vegetarian diet.
The terrapin is often seen when driving past a waterhole or even a large mud wallow, as they live in freshwater, unlike the turtle that lives in saltwater. Due to this aquatic lifestyle, they have webbed feet with claws which enables them to move through the water with ease. The shell of a terrapin is much flatter than the tortoise (this will mean they are more streamlined in the water) and does not have a pattern. Unlike their cousins, they are only able to retract their heads sideways and not straight back into their shells. When it comes to feeding they are omnivores which means they will eat aquatic plant material as well as aquatic insects, tadpoles, frogs, crabs and even feed off carrion, whereas the tortoise is a herbivore.
Unfortunately, we do not see turtles here at Londolozi as they are only found off the coast of South Africa as they live in the sea. They are like the terrapin and can often be confused, but they have flippers instead webbed feet to propel them through the ocean and feed mainly on squid making them carnivores. Their shell is also flattened, and their head can be withdrawn vertically but not completely hidden.
So next time you are here at Londolozi and see one of the shelled creatures, see if you can try to identify which family they belong to.