Turtle Identification

Pretty much anyone can tell the difference between a sea turtle and a land tortoise. But, when it comes to turtles, there are many different subspecies. 

It’s important to know the different types of turtles and the subspecies of those turtles. If you own or are considering buying a turtle, knowing exactly what species it is will help you to feed and care for them correctly.

So, how exactly do you identify a turtle? And how do you tell the difference between different types of turtles? Here’s our in-depth guide to identifying turtles.

The Difference Between Turtles and Tortoises

So, what are the differences between turtles and tortoises? Well, first of all, let’s clear up exactly what turtles and tortoises are. Technically, all tortoises are turtles. This is because tortoises and turtles are both within the families Testudines or Chelonia. But, not all turtles are tortoises. 

So, there are different kinds of turtles but they are not all tortoises. There are different kinds of tortoises and they are all turtles.

That said, there are still some important differences between the animals considered to be “tortoises” and “turtles”. Here are the main ways to tell them apart.

Environment

Although their specific environment varies, tortoises live exclusively on land. Sea turtles live, unsurprisingly, in the sea. But they do come on land when they are ready to lay eggs. 

There are some turtles that live exclusively on land. But that does not mean they are tortoises. There are some turtles that are semi-aquatic and so live both on land and in water. These are usually freshwater turtles such as sliders and cooters.

Feet

The easiest way of telling turtles and tortoises apart is by their feet. Tortoises have legs that resemble other reptiles, such as lizards. These are called elephantine or columnar feet.  They have legs and feet. And they have claws on their feet.

Semi-aquatic and aquatic turtles have similar legs to tortoises but their feet are webbed. Sea turtles look entirely different and have flippers. They do not resemble legs at all. 

Diet

The diet is an important difference between tortoises and turtles.

Generally speaking, turtles are omnivores. Whereas tortoises are vegetarian.

Different Types of Turtles

So, what are the different kinds of turtles?

Well, as mentioned above, these include tortoises that live on land, freshwater turtles, and sea turtles. These creatives all have different habitats, diets, and characteristics. 

So let’s get into the details. 

Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are the most recognizable kind of turtle. They have flippers instead of legs and live almost exclusively in the sea.

They only ever come on land to lay their eggs. Here are the specific characteristics of sea turtles:

Physical characteristics: 

  • Flippers
  • Large streamline shell
  • Rectangular head
  • Non-retractile head and limbs
  • Bony shell
  • Scissor-like jaws

Diet:

  • Crabs
  • Mollusks
  • Shrimp
  • Vegetation
  • Jellyfish
  • Tunicates

Habitat: 

Open sea. But some juvenile sea turtles swim around bays and estuaries as well.

Subspecies:

  • Flatback
  • Green Turtle
  • Hawksbill
  • Kemp’s Ridley
  • Leatherback
  • Loggerhead
  • Olive Ridley

Life Span:

20 to 30 years (but some have been known to live to 50 years and older).

Freshwater Turtles

Freshwater turtles are not as well known as sea turtles. Physically, they look almost like a cross between sea turtles and tortoises.

The specific characteristics of freshwater turtles are:

Physical characteristics:

  • Hard shells
  • Short necks (other than the Eastern long-necked turtle and the Broad-shelled turtle)
  • Some species have webbed feet

Diet:

  • Worms
  • Insect larvae
  • Insects
  • Water plants
  • Algae
  • Crustaceans
  • Snails

Habitat:

Freshwater turtles live, unsurprisingly, in freshwater. But not in every kind. The habitats of freshwater turtles can vary greatly.

But they mostly thrive in shallow and muddy environments. These include:

  • Wetlands
  • Lakes
  • Rivers

Subspecies:

  • Yellow-Bellied Turtle
  • Red Ear Slider Turtle
  • Florida Red-Bellied Turtle
  • Cumberland Slider Turtle
  • Eastern River Cooter Turtle
  • Japanese Turtle
  • European Pond Turtle
  • Reeves Turtle
  • Indian Tent Turtle
  • Bog Turtle
  • Matamata Turtle
  • Blanding’s Turtle
  • Pig Nosed Turtle
  • Chicken Turtle
  • African Helmeted Turtle
  • Big-Headed Turtle
  • Spotted Turtle

Life Span: 

50 years (but they have been known to live longer)

Land Tortoises

Land tortoises are perhaps the best-known type of turtle. This is likely because we can see them, keep them as pets, and interact with them more. Tortoises are usually considered to be a separate species from turtles.

But, as mentioned above, they are a type of turtle. Here are the specific characteristics of land tortoises: 

Physical characteristics:

  • Columnar back legs and feet
  • Front legs and feet covered in large scales
  • Retractable head and legs
  • Tall carapace
  • Hard carapace

Diet: 

Land tortoises, unlike sea turtles and freshwater turtles, are mostly herbivores. They will consume a wide range of vegetation, such as:

  • Grass
  • Leaves
  • Flowers
  • Fruit
  • Seeds

Habitat:

Deserts, shrubland, forests, grasslands. Some land tortoises, such as box tortoises, can be kept as pets.

Subspecies:

  • Speckled Tortoise
  • Egyptian Tortoise
  • Russian Tortoise
  • Greek Tortoise
  • Hermann’s Tortoise
  • Pancake Tortoise
  • Gopher Tortoise
  • Hingeback Tortoise
  • Indian Star Tortoise
  • Elongated Tortoise
  • Desert Tortoise
  • Red-footed Tortoise
  • Marginated Tortoise
  • Burmese Star Tortoise
  • Impressed Tortoise
  • Angonoka Tortoise
  • Yellow Foot Tortoise
  • Radiated Tortoise
  • Leopard Tortoise
  • Sulcata Tortoise
  • Aldabra Tortoise
  • Galapagos Tortoise

Life Span:

80 to 150 years

How to Identify a Turtle

So, now you know the difference between the main groups of turtles, how do you put this knowledge into practice?

Here’s our guide to identifying a turtle.

The Shell

The shell of a turtle is one of the main means of identification. The shells of turtles are all generally uniform. While some might have some variation, the pattern, shape, and size of a turtle’s shell should give you some idea of what kind it is. 

Turtles all have an upper shell which is called the carapace. The underside of the shell is called the plastron.

So, what should you look for when trying to identify a turtle by its shell? One of the first things to do is look at the pattern. Specific species of turtle have specific patterns. The different types of pattern are:

  • Reticulated
  • Ringed
  • Solid
  • Spotted
  • Striped

The patterns aren’t specific to the species of turtle. But recognizing the pattern can help you determine the type of turtle you’re looking at.

Another important difference between turtle shells is the hardness. If the shall (the carapace side) is soft and pliable, then it is a softshell turtle. If the shell is hard, then it is a hardshell turtle.

The sections of a turtle’s shell are called “scutes”. These are the pieces of shell that make up the main pattern. Scutes are a very useful way of identifying a turtle. They are different depending on the species and subspecies. 

Some, such as leatherback sea turtles, do not have them at all. In fact, leatherback turtles, soft-shell turtles, and pig-nosed turtles all have skin covering their shells.

This can give the appearance that they have an entirely soft shell or none at all but this isn’t the case. Whereas many land and freshwater turtles, as well as loggerhead sea turtles, have very distinctive scutes. 

The Head and Neck

The neck is a very useful way of identifying a turtle. Sea turtles, for example, cannot retract their necks. Land tortoises and freshwater turtles can retract their head and the rest of their limbs. 

The way that a turtle retracts its head and neck can also help you to identify it. Turtles will either retract directly inwards or to the side. Cryptodires retract their necks straight back into their shells. Pleurodires retract their neck sideways, tucking it under the shell by its shoulder.

More specifically, the length and shape of the head and neck can also be used to identify a turtle. The necks and heads of sea turtles are rectangular. Some turtles also have specific markings on their heads and necks. These are called painted turtles.

The overall length of the turtle’s neck can also give you an idea of the kind of turtle you are looking at. If it has, for example, a neck that is very long and can stretch, it is possibly a chicken turtle.

But, some other turtles have very short necks that cannot stretch very far. This could be a Murray short-necked turtle. You don’t need to measure the length of the neck. But trying to gauge its length will help you to identify it. 

The shape of a turtle’s head is also a very useful way of identifying a turtle. Although a lot of turtles have very similar looking heads, others, such as the Matamata turtle, have incredibly unique head shapes. So it’s worth having a closer look.

The Beak and Jaws

The beak and jaws of a turtle might not appear very different. But, when you take a closer look, you will realize that there are some important and unique features. The jaws and beaks of turtles vary in terms of size, shape, and texture. 

Some turtles, such as box turtles, have hard, sharp beaks. Others, such as leatherback sea turtles, have much softer beaks but they are still sharp.

The shape of a turtle’s beak largely depends on its habitat and diet. For example, a sea turtle that largely feeds on jellyfish doesn’t need a hard and tough jaw. But it does need a sharp beak. 

The Keel

The keel of a turtle is a ridge that runs from its front to its back. On some turtles, this looks like a sharp fold or bend along the length of its shell. 

This can be useful in identifying turtles as few turtles have them. If a turtle has a rounded shell, then it is the Common Map Turtle or the Keeled Box Turtle.

The Legs

The legs of a turtle might not be able to tell you the exact subspecies but it will help with more general identification. As has already been mentioned, sea turtles have the biggest difference as they don’t have legs at all but have flippers instead. 

Land tortoises generally have the most distinctive legs. They often have, as mentioned before, elephantine or columnar legs. But this is only the case with the back legs. The front legs of land tortoises are slightly different and not quite as stocky. 

The Feet

Although the shell can give you a pretty good idea of the type of turtle you have, the feet are the best way to tell turtles apart. Sea turtles have flippers and do not move well on land.

Freshwater turtles have legs and feet with toes (sometimes these toes are webbed). Tortoises have flat feet. Tortoises’ feet and legs are similar to those of elephants.

The Tail

The tails of specific turtles are very different. They can vary between males and females too. For example, the female of the Greek tortoise has a shorter and less barbed tail than the male. 

Some turtles have very long tails, such as Loggerhead sea turtles. Whereas others have very short tails that are almost hidden beneath their shells. Some, such as the Greek tortoise, have thick tails with barbs.

The tail is also a useful way of determining the sex of a turtle. Although size can vary and there is no definitive turtle tail length, male turtles generally have longer tails than female turtles. 

The ideal painted turtle tank setup

Identifying Common Turtle Subspecies

There have been 356 different types of turtle identified. So, we won’t be going over the characteristics of every kind of turtle.

But here are some defining features of some of the most common turtles. This guide should help you to identify your turtle (unless you have come across something very rare).

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback sea turtles are incredibly well known and distinctive looking. They do have a shell but it is very different from most other turtles, even other sea turtles.

Rather than a round keratin shell, leatherback sea turtles have long shells made from tissue similar to cartilage. Instead of individual scutes, the shells of leatherback sea turtles are in one piece with several ridges down the length. 

Size: 1.8 to 2.2 meters

Shell Pattern: Black or dark gray with white spots.

Most Discerning Feature(s): Long, dark, leather-like shell with no scutes.

Green Sea Turtle

The green sea turtle is by far one of the most recognizable types of turtle. They are the most commonly seen in pop culture (think of Crush in Finding Nemo).

They are also the kind most commonly shown in videos and images around conservation and plastic pollution (so n.b. Ditch the single-use plastic).

Interestingly, green sea turtles are not called that because of any external coloring (although some do appear green in certain water). Their name in fact derives from the green color of their fat.

Size: Up to 1.5 meters

Shell Pattern: Light brown scutes with white/green surrounding lines.

Most Discerning Feature(s): Flat head with a hooked beak. Dark brown scales with white surrounding lines on flippers, head, neck, and sometimes shell. 

Common Snapping Turtle

Common snapping turtles are, as the name suggests, very common turtles. They are sometimes kept as pets. But, as the name also suggests, they can be difficult.

They are prone to biting and can be difficult to care for.

Size: Up to 20 inches

Shell Pattern: Dark brown and tan scutes.

Most Discerning Feature(s): Long and flexible neck. This gave inspiration to their scientific name Chelydra Serpentina, after their snake-like movement. 

Eastern Box Turtle

Eastern Box Turtles are some of the most popular turtles that people keep as pets. This is because they are very docile and personable pets.

Eastern Box Turtles are sweet and gentle creatures. 

Size: 4 to 7 inches

Shell Pattern: Dark orange-brown scutes with yellow and/or orange spots on each scute.

Most Discerning Feature(s): Yellow and orange spots across the shell, legs, and head.

Mississippi Map Turtle

Size: 6 to 10 inches

Shell Pattern: Orange/brown scutes with dark brown lines between each scute.

Most Discerning Feature(s): Large white eyes and swirling pattern on neck and legs

Red-Eared Slider

Red-eared sliders are incredibly unique looking turtles. As well as the red coloring on the sides of their head, they also have green stripes across their necks and legs.

Their shells appear almost entirely dark brown. But their plastrons are a pale orange or yellow with dark spots.

Size: 6 to 10 inches

Shell Pattern: Brown/green swirls (sometimes dark brown, sometimes orange, the color can vary) on scutes with dark brown/black in between.

Most Discerning Feature(s): Red coloring on either side of the head

Western Painted Turtle

Although we think that all turtles are brilliant and beautiful, the patterns and colorings on western painted turtles are truly stunning. Their name is very appropriate as their plastrons do look as though someone has taken a paintbrush to them.

From above, these turtles look as though there is one dark color, with perhaps some red poking out from underneath. But, when looked at from the other direction, you will see a red, black, and sometimes yellow pattern. 

Size: 3 to 10 inches

Shell Pattern: Black or olive green scutes 

Most Discerning Feature(s): Orange plastron

Painted Wood Turtle

Although not quite as striking as the western painted turtle, the painted wood turtle also has a stunning exterior.

Rather than a mirrored pattern on the plastron, the scutes of these turtles have swirls of red, black and yellow. 

Size: 7 to 8 inches

Shell Pattern: Yellow, brown, tan, and red markings on scutes. Dark brown, black, red, or a mix of all three in between each scute.

Most Discerning Feature(s): Bright red markings on shell, plastron, neck, and legs.

Summary

So, you now have a pretty good idea of the different kinds of turtles. You should now, at least, know how to tell the difference between sea turtles, freshwater turtles, and land tortoises.

As you will have noticed from this guide, one of the easiest ways to identify a turtle is by its shell pattern. Failing that, any other distinctive patterns or colorings are also very helpful. If you’re still struggling after considering those, then the shape of the head should help you get there.

As there are so many different subspecies of turtles, we couldn’t quite fit in the features of every single one. But this should give you a pretty good starting point. 

Dorothy Razo
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