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What are the Different Types of Turtles?

Paulla Estes
By
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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We all are familiar with the children's story, The Tortoise and the Hare. What we may not know is that there is more to tortoises and turtles than slow movement and a hard shell. Turtles are some of the oldest creatures, having been around since the days of the dinosaur, and even looking a bit prehistoric. There are many different types and varieties of turtles, classified in twelve biological families. Turtles generally can be divided between tortoises (the land variety) and marine turtles, which spend most of their time in water, though there are overlaps.

Common freshwater turtles form the largest family of turtles and can be found all over the world. They spend most of their time in ponds, lakes and slow moving streams. Most of the turtles we see in ponds or pet stores belong to this family, including diamondback terrapins and box turtles. Less common freshwater turtles include the soft-shelled variety. These turtles have a leathery covering rather than a hard shell.

Land tortoises form another large group of turtle classifications. Like other land reptiles, land tortoises live generally in warm areas of the world and are herbivorous. Unlike the fins on a marine turtle, tortoises have club-like feet and they travel slowly over land. Snapping turtles are large, carnivorous fresh-water turtles. While most turtles are quiet and fearful, snapping turtles are aggressive and are prone to attack just about anything.

Sea turtles are divided up among two classifications. The majority of sea turtles are of different families, but are closely related. Leatherbacks are the largest and heaviest of sea turtles, often weighing nearly 1100 pounds (500 kg). Sea turtles are much faster in the water than their land-loving counterparts—some sea turtles have reached speeds close to 20 mph (32 kph). Most sea turtles are endangered. Though they are sought for food, leather, and shell ornaments, catching sea turtles is illegal.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main categories of turtles?

Turtles are primarily categorized into three groups: aquatic turtles, semi-aquatic (or terrapins), and tortoises. Aquatic turtles, like sea turtles, spend most of their lives in the ocean. Semi-aquatic turtles, such as the red-eared slider, inhabit both land and water environments. Tortoises are land-dwellers, with sturdy legs adapted for walking on the ground.

How many species of turtles exist worldwide?

According to the IUCN Red List, there are over 350 species of turtles and tortoises worldwide. This number includes both freshwater and marine species, each adapted to their unique habitats with varying shapes, sizes, and life spans. Conservation efforts are critical as many of these species face threats from habitat loss and poaching.

What distinguishes a tortoise from other types of turtles?

Tortoises are a type of turtle characterized by their domed shells and terrestrial lifestyle. They have columnar, elephantine legs and are not equipped for swimming, unlike their aquatic relatives. Tortoises are herbivorous and can live for several decades, with some species like the Galápagos tortoise reaching over 100 years of age.

Can you identify a turtle's habitat by its physical characteristics?

Yes, a turtle's physical traits often indicate its habitat. Aquatic turtles have streamlined shells and webbed feet for swimming. Sea turtles have flippers to navigate the ocean. Semi-aquatic turtles possess both webbed feet for swimming and claws for digging or walking on land. Tortoises have dome-shaped shells and sturdy legs for a terrestrial environment.

What are some of the most endangered turtle species?

Some of the most critically endangered turtle species include the Hawksbill Sea Turtle and the Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle. According to conservationists, these species face severe threats from habitat destruction, illegal trade, and bycatch in fishing gear. Efforts to protect their nesting sites and reduce bycatch are vital for their survival.

How do turtles contribute to their ecosystems?

Turtles play significant roles in their ecosystems. Aquatic turtles help control aquatic vegetation and serve as both predator and prey in the food chain. Tortoises contribute to seed dispersal and nutrient cycling through their diet and digestion. Their burrows also provide shelter for other animals, showcasing their importance as ecosystem engineers.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Paulla Estes
By Paulla Estes
Based in Maine, Paulla Estes is a freelance writer and website editor with a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Paulla appreciates the flexibility and consistency that comes with contributing to AllThingsNature. She relishes the opportunity to continuously learn new things while crafting informative and engaging articles for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon141344 — On Jan 10, 2011

i have two turtles. I am not sure what they are. They seem like red eared slider turtles as they have a light red spot behind their ears but it's not that significant, so am thinking maybe they are map turtles.

I wanted to know for how long they can stay under water and if they need to surface every now and then. Plus, what do i feed them? regards --vicky

By anon75475 — On Apr 06, 2010

i keep 2 maps and 2 yellow bellies together in a 6'x2'x2' tank half filled. they've been together since they were babies and they are a joy and no hassle to keep.

the maps have so much character and are fearless little things. they aren't hard to keep in a tank, not sure about outside. I'm thinking of putting some red eared sliders with them in the next few days. good luck. ac uk

By anon62215 — On Jan 25, 2010

I really want a turtle but I'm not sure what type to go for. i would want a small one. i have heard about the snapping turtles and that is excluded. also my parents won't let me have one. any advice on how i could change their minds?

By glotto22 — On Aug 11, 2009

I found a turtle in the backyard. I need to know how to care for it. food, living space, general care.

By anon38231 — On Jul 24, 2009

I have a baby turtle that looks like a red eared slider, but it doesn't have the red stripe. It's green, so it must not be a map turtle as i was told. What type of turtle do i have?

By anon35618 — On Jul 06, 2009

I have a snapping turtle and yes they bite at everything. It's not because they're just being mean, it's because they are always prey to larger animals and predators only part time. They feed about 5-6 times a day but eat very little each time. Now my turtle is a fatty asnd eats about 9 full size crickets per day. So I guess it depends on the turtle. But they bite out of habit, not to be mean.

By valarie116 — On Jun 13, 2009

I have 2 red-ear sliders I have had since they were little. They had a baby in the pond about a year ago. Never saw it too much, always ran from us. Thought it had died as had not seen in long time. Then my husband saw it out several months ago. Now it has been gettin up on rocks and staying out a long time. Not running when we approach anymore. But, its coloring is different from other young red-ears. He is boxier looking and his shell is a light brown. His body also is a light brownish color. No stripes on head and his nose and face area are a reddish hue coloring. Very different. Don't know if it's the same baby or someone dumped another turtle in our pond. Any info would be appreciated.

Thanks, Valarie116

By anon1397 — On May 29, 2007

This similar article here about types of turtles says that map-turtles are very difficult to keep.

I was considering to get one but now don't know what to do. Any reply will be highly appreciated.

Thanks

By kirinqueen — On Mar 15, 2007

Is it really true that snapping turtles will attack "just about anything"? Why is this? Something to do with a physical weakness that they are trying to compensate for?

Paulla Estes

Paulla Estes

Based in Maine, Paulla Estes is a freelance writer and website editor with a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Paulla appreciates the flexibility and consistency that comes with contributing to AllThingsNature. She relishes the opportunity to continuously learn new things while crafting informative and engaging articles for readers.
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