Names: Elaphe slowinski, Pantherophis and what is a turtle, tortoise and terrapin? The opinion of a Herpetopathologist
I am a veterinary herpetopathologist. What exactly is that? Well it is someone that has spent too much time in school, first of all. I am a herpetologist, a veterinarian and a pathologist. The result? A veterinary herpetopathologist - someone with a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, a doctorate in veterinary medicine, and a PhD in veterinary pathology, specializing in the biology, physiology and diseases of reptiles. What is the sum total of all that education? Someone that no body understands, or cares much about. But that is what I am. A man obsessed with reptiles and amphibians and what makes them tick and what makes them croak (as in death, not vocalizing). I am a man obsessed with classification, both in terms of taxonomy and in terms of classifying disease into its myriad categories. As a man obsessed with classification, I decided to have as my first hub this little post. Here I address the two questions that have been asked of me the most in the past 6 years. What is the difference between a turtle, tortoise and terrapin? And that other question. What is the right taxonomy of ratsnakes, and what is Slowinski's corn snake?
For those interested in learning more about herpetology or reptile disease, or husbandry of reptiles and amphibians, check out my reading list.
Suggested Readings for those interested in herpetology or herpetoculture.
- Selected Herpetology References - New Category (1)
Selected texts for the herpetologist, hobbyist or veterinarian.
Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins - What is correct?
One question that seems to be giving people some trouble is the difference among the terms turtle, tortoise and terrapin. Ok, no one group will be pleased with me taking this on, but at least some will agree with my definitions.
1) There is no set definitions. Its true.
Oxford's Compact Dictionary says: • noun a small freshwater turtle.
Not very specific is it? Also many herpetologists and some herp texts will say that terrapins live in brackish water.
Oxford says noun 1 a marine or freshwater reptile with a bony or leathery shell and flippers or webbed toes.
Other dictionaries (here the American Heritage Dictionary) give other definitions like:
Any of various aquatic or terrestrial reptiles of the order Testudines (or Chelonia), having horny toothless jaws and a bony or leathery shell into which the head, limbs, and tail can be withdrawn in most species.
Ok, one says they are aquatic one says they are either aquatic or terrestrial.
The only one anyone seems to have any form of agreement on is tortoise.
: any of a family (Testudinidae) of terrestrial turtles; broadly : turtle
:noun a slow-moving land reptile with a scaly or leathery domed shell into which it can retract its head and legs.
Wait, that is not really specific. Well most agree that tortoises are terrestrial. The fact is that nothing is really settled and there are regional uses of the words.
To make things even more confusing, the scientifically accepted common name of the eastern box turtle is eastern box turtle and the scientific taxonomic name is Terapene carolina. So here is an example of an animal that is both a terrapin and a turtle! What is more is that it is terrestrial!
So what do you do? What can you say? Is there any recourse to untangle this mess?
YES! There is a way to save the day.
2) Take a definition and run with it. That is the best thing you can do. Most of the herpetologists I deal with use the following set of definitions, and I use this set too because it gives us a standard that we can use.
Turtle: any testudine, a broad term roughly synonomous with Testudines and including aquatic and terrestrial species.
Tortoise: any terrestrial testudine (turtle) that generally has elephantine appendages and a high domed shell (though the shell has its exceptions). The most commonly accepted genera for tortoise standards are Geochelone and Testudo.
Terrapin: any turtle on the table or in the kitchen. The term terrapin came from the Algonquin Indian language and meant edible turtle. Thus, it is a culinary term not really a scientific term, and should remain so. Only when it is part of the accepted name should it be used, such as Diamondback Terrapin, but it should not be used to refer to a group of animals as a way of classification, unless you are a chef.