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What is the difference between a sea turtle, freshwater turtle, and land turtle?

May 31, 2010 | Tag(s): turtle

Ever wonder what the difference is between turtles? Well I am going to help explain it to you.


"Can a sea turtle pull in its legs into the shell?" This has to be one of the most frequently asked question about sea turtles that I am asked. Well I wanted to give all of you some quick and easy things to look for next time you are face to face with a turtle to be able to tell what it might be.
I like to put turtles into three simplified categories: sea, freshwater, and land. Now for starters all turtles are reptiles. The earliest turtles date back some 215 million years ago which make turtles one of the oldest reptile groups. Turtles are also ectothermic- which means cold-blooded. Their internal body temperature is dependent on the environment around them. All turtles breathe air and lay eggs. And here is an interesting fact that a lot of people do not know about turtles: their shell is connected to their body; their spine connects right into the carapace (or top part of the shell). You can also see their ribs in the carapace. So no you will never see a ‘naked’ turtle running around!
Ok so we move on to the initial question: what makes a sea turtle different from a freshwater turtle or a land turtle? Here are some easy guidelines so if you ever encounter a turtle, you can be able to tell where it lives.
Sea turtles are ocean dwelling turtles. They possess four flippers (not legs and feet) that aid in swimming and maneuvering. They cannot pull in their head or flippers into their shell for protection against predators. There are seven species of sea turtles found throughout the oceans of the world, with the exception of the Arctic circles. Remember they are cold-blooded animals and do not do well in cold weather. All seven species of sea turtle are endangered or threatened.
Freshwater turtles are also called terrapins by some people. Red eared sliders, snapping turtles, and soft-shelled turtles are just a few examples of what would qualify as a freshwater turtle. These turtles spend a good amount of their time swimming in fresh water and during the peak sunlight hours often can be seen basking on logs and at the water’s edge. I have even seen these animals basking on the backs of alligators! If you look closely at the feet of these turtles you will see claws on the end of their ‘toes’. Freshwater turtles, unlike sea turtles, can pull their limbs and head inside their shell for protection against predators or anything they deem as a potential threat.
Land turtles are also referred to as tortoises. Just think of box turtles or the very large Aldabra tortoises you see at the zoo. They are often characterized by having a dome shaped shell. Most land turtles are herbivores but have been known from time to time to feast on insects and even carrion should the occasion call for it. Land turtles have the ability to pull their limbs and head into their shell for protection.
So there you go! I hope this clears up some confusion on just the most basic of levels for you. Next time you visit Audubon Zoo or Audubon Aquarium make sure to keep your eyes open for any turtles and I know you can put them in one of these three easy categories. Maybe you can even amaze your family and friends with your new knowledge.
What will tomorrow hold? We never know but we are ready for anything and everything. Until then:
"For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."~Baba Dioum

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