Since land turtles and aquatic turtles are both popular in the pet trade, it’s important to know which category your turtles fit into so that you can mimic their natural environment as closely as possible with the habitat that you set up for them.
A tortoise is a turtle but a turtle is not necessarily a tortoise. “Turtle” is a broad term that can refer to any reptile with a shell. However, the classification can be further broken down into types of turtles. Confusingly, a turtle is a type of turtle. Tortoises and terrapins are the other two kinds of turtles.
Distinguishing attributes of the feet, shell and habitat help to tell these reptiles apart. The most obvious distinction is where they live. Tortoises live on land. Turtles can live in water or land, with some species being almost solely aquatic.
Land turtles usually need only enough water to submerge herself and soak her shell, whereas aquatic turtles (or sea turtles) need ample swimming room. Sea turtles live about 70 years, while land tortoises can live up to 150 years.
Most aquatic turtles, even those with harder, bony shells, have a more streamlined profile. Their shells are not as high as those of their land-bound brethren — aquatics are much longer than they are tall.
The most common land turtle in the pet trade is the box turtle. Not only is her shell taller than that of most aquatic turtles, but herplastron — the belly-side of the shell — is also partially movable at the front and back, as if it were hinged. Unlike aquatic turtles that escape predators by fleeing into water, the box turtle doesn’t swim well, but she can completely close herself up in her shell, protecting her legs, head and tail.