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Turtles and Tortoises: A Long, Slow Look at the Hare's Arch Rival

Updated on July 24, 2013

Most of us know the story of the tortoise and the hare. This fable that we often hear during our childhood is meant to teach us that it is better to take things slow and do a good job rather than rush along thinking we have it made. In reality, a tortoise is faster than many people think when on the move, but it is still no match for even the most distracted bunny. But as with most parables, the moral of the story is the point of the tale. Details are of less significance.

Many people believe a tortoise and a turtle are one and the same, but this is not really true. Though they are very similar, tortoises and turtles do have some distinct characteristics that distinguish them from one another. The table below summarizes these distinctions. Check it out to see what makes these wonderful creatures unique in their own individual ways.


Now let's take a look at some specific species of turtles as well as a couple species of tortoises and examine their characteristics, habits and lifestyles a little more in depth...

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)


The common snapping turtle is one of the most widespread turtles in North America with a range that extends from southern Canada all the way down to northern Mexico and includes everything east of the Rocky Mountains. Common snapping turtles, or snappers as they are often called, have a beak-like jaw and a flexible neck that can make it a very capable adversary. Their estimated lifespan in the wild is around thirty years but have been known to live in captivity for almost fifty years. Younger turtles have a ridged shell that tends to smooth out as the turtle ages. With a carapace that can range from 10 inches to 20 inches, snappers are often found in areas near shallow water such as small ponds or streams though they are also known to travel great distances overland seeking new habitats.

Speckled Padloper Tortoise (Homopus signatus)

The smallest tortoise in the world is the speckled padloper tortoise which grows to less than four inches. Males of the species are even smaller. This tortoise is found only in South Africa. It is easily distinguished from other padloper species by its distinctive black speckles though it also has five toes on its front feet while other padlopers have only four. Their unique shell coloring offers great camouflage for them as they forage for plants in the rocky areas they tend to make their homes in. Unfortunately, it also makes them nearly impossible to see when they wander onto a highway resulting in a high rate of deaths due to motor vehicles.

Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta)

Ranging from southeastern Canada all the way down to Georgia, the eastern painted turtle is found mainly east of the Appalachians. It is closely related to other species of painted turtles which are spread across most of North America. Though very widespread, all species of painted turtles are only found in limited parts of their natural range. The eastern painted turtle is one of the most colorful turtles and can often be found sunning near bodies of water except during winter when it hibernates. It is a smaller turtle reaching a maximum of about ten inches though average length is a bit smaller.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra)

One and Only: Lonesome George

In his later years, Lonesome George was known as the rarest creature on the face of the earth. He made his home at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island where conservationists spent years trying to get George to successfully mate in hopes of preserving his bloodline. Sadly, though several clutches of eggs were laid, none were actually able to hatch. There is hope, however, that George's subspecies may survive among thousands of tortoises that have been dumped by whalers and pirates on Isabella Island, another of the Galapagos Islands.

The largest living tortoise species is the Galapagos giant tortoise, growing to nearly 900 pounds and almost six feet in length. These behemoths commonly live more than a century in the wild and have been known to make it well past a century and a half in captivity. In 1835, Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands where the giant tortoises played a role in his development of the theory of evolution.

Though there were once at least 15 subspecies of this tortoise, habitat destruction and hunting has brought the demise of five of those subspecies. On June 24, 2012, the last surviving member of the subspecies Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, a male tortoise known as Lonesome George, passed away most likely due to heart failure. With George's death, this brought the number of subspecies of the Galapagos giant tortoise down to only ten. All ten remaining subspecies are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable or worse.

Yellow-Bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta)

With a habitat ranging from Florida to southeastern Virginia, the yellow-bellied slider is the most common turtle found in this area. Males can grow to lengths of about eight inches while females can grow to just over a foot. Their carapace features yellow stripes on a brown and black background while their skin is green with yellow markings. As you might expect with from their names, they have a very distinctive yellow plastron. Yellow-bellied sliders will usually feed in the morning and spend the rest of the day basking in the sun before returning to the water to sleep away the night. While captive sliders have been known to live more than 40 years, in the wild, their lifespan is expected to be less than 30 years.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

The hawksbill sea turtle is a very beautiful turtle that sadly is critically endangered. It has an Atlantic and pacific subspecies and is found around the world though its numbers are dwindling. Its flipper-like arms make it a great swimmer in the ocean waters it calls home. At around three feet in length and 180 pounds, the hawksbill is a large turtle. They can also be found in coral reefs as well as lagoons and mangrove swamps. Depending on the temperature of the water, the hawksbill's shell will change colors. It gets its name from its sharp, curved beak that is perhaps its most distinguishing feature.

African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)

Found only in the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, the African spurred tortoise is one of the largest tortoises in the world. Growing up to three feet long and up to 200 pounds, it is actually the largest mainland tortoise with only two larger species that are both found only on islands (such as the Galapagos giant tortoise discussed above). It escapes the heat of the African desert by burrowing down to a damper, cooler area and spending most of the day inside its burrow.

Many tortoise enthusiasts do keep African spurred tortoises as pets, but to do so one must be very diligent in caring for this magnificent creature. The animal's dietary needs are very important and must be fully met to ensure its well-being. It is also important to regulate the environment in which an African spurred tortoise is housed with temperatures being strictly regulated. It should also be noted that as African spurred tortoises are considered a vulnerable species, tortoises cannot be taken from the wild as pets.

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

When it comes to freshwater turtles, you will not find many larger than the alligator snapping turtle and, in fact, you will find non larger in North America. Found primarily in the southeastern United States, they can reach lengths of 32 inches though larger specimens have also been verified. They usually weigh in around 150 to 180 pounds. Many people think the alligator snapping turtle is closely related to the common snapper, but that is not actually the case. While alligator snapping turtles are not likely to bite for no reason, if provoked, their powerful jaws can easily take off a human finger.

Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)

The leopard tortoise is one of the larger tortoises in the world but surprisingly is still a popular pet. Though wild leopard tortoises have been banned from import into the United States since 2000, breeders raise the tortoises specifically for the pet market. When taken from the wild, these behemoths make very poor pets, but when raised in captivity, they do extremely well. If you are thinking about this exotic animal for a pet, however, keep in mind that they grow to two feet or more in length, weigh well over 50 pounds and live more than 80 years!

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

The graceful loggerhead sea turtle can be found in oceans around the world though it has been considered a threatened species since 1978 due to unintended deaths at the hands of the fishing industry, loss of nesting grounds due to human real estate development and the introduction of exotic predators to its habitat. Averaging 36 inches in length and weighing about 300 pounds, these large reptiles are beautiful to watch as they swim in the ocean depths. Though susceptible to many predators while young, an adult loggerhead need only worry about encountering the occasional shark and crossing the path of a random shrimp trawler.

Loggerhead sea turtles prefer habitats close to coastal areas but do sometimes live in inland water habitats and also travel hundreds of miles out to sea. They can swim at speeds up to 15 miles per hour which seems great until you think about how fast some of those occasional sharks can swim. They are carnivores, eating everything from crabs and jellyfish to seaweed and sea snails.

Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)

The bog turtle is the smallest North American turtle reaching only about four inches when fully grown. It is found throughout parts of the eastern United States reaching as far north as Vermont, as far south as Georgia and as far west as Ohio. However, despite this large range, its habitat is not widespread and only about 300 colonies of bog turtles are currently known to exist. It was first cataloged in 1801 during a survey of turtle species found in Pennsylvania.

Though it looks a lot like some species of painted or spotted turtles, it is most closely related to the wood turtle. The most distinctive characteristic of this species is the orange spots found on each side of its neck. The bog turtle is considered critically endangered yet is still popular on the black market as a pet due to its size and unique characteristics. With a wide range of predators including skunks and foxes as well as susceptibility to numerous parasites, the bog turtle faces an uphill battle for survival.

Famous Turtles We All Know and Love...

Beginning with the tale of the tortoise and the hare, mankind has been a bit fascinated by tortoises and turtles. Let's take a quick look at some of the more famous turtles...

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles burst onto the comic book scene in 1984 when creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-published the fearsome foursome's first comic. From the humble beginnings, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo would go on to star in several animated television series as well as a series of four live action films.

Mr. Turtle
Darnell Turner's pet turtle from the show My Name Is Earl is said to be an "African spur thigh tortoise," but this is doubtful as African spurs are typically two to three feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds. Mr. Turtle never came anywhere near approaching this size though it was revealed on the show that he was born in 1913 and should have been full grown.

The Turtles
In the heyday of the Beatles, it was only fitting that mankind also pay tribute to our hard-shelled little friends, the turtles. Formed by Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie), The Turtles were a pop group along the lines of The Byrds with hits such as "Elenore" and "Happy Together."


Carapace A turtle's upper shell that consists of its ribcage, outer armor and scutes.

Plastron The lower part of a turtle's shell that protects its belly. The plastron is typically less rigid than the carapace.

Scutes Scale-like external plates made of keratin on a turtle's carapace.

Which of the above turtles or tortoises do you find most interesting?

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