Can Tortoises Swim?

Can Tortoises Swim

A few years back, a 14-second video clip of a girl bragging about saving a turtle went viral. She claimed that rescuing turtles is her hobby and tossed the creature into a water source from a height. The worst part of this incident was that the girl mistook a Gopher tortoise as a struggling turtle. The viewers were concerned whether the tortoise had made it alive or died. So, can tortoises swim?

Tortoises can’t swim. The physiology of a tortoise does not allow it to swim. Instead, the tortoise floats or drifts in water. A few tortoise species may manage to swim poorly but do not stand in water for long.

Why can a tortoise not swim while its close relative turtle can? What should you do if you find a drowning tortoise? Find out all your answers from the following article.

Can Tortoises Swim?

People have a misconception that tortoises can swim just like turtles. Unfortunately, this information is not true. The best a tortoise can do is float or drift in the water.

The physique of a tortoise is the reason why it is unable to swim. So, if you throw a tortoise in a lake in the name of rescuing, you are not doing any favor. A lucky tortoise will float and bump onto a land area alive. Otherwise, the creature will experience a premature death by drowning.

The surroundings of a tortoise affect its floating ability. For example, if the natural habitat of a tortoise has water sources around, it will be quite good at floating. Surprisingly, these creatures can travel pretty far just by drifting away.

Take the Aldabra and Galapagos as examples. Both the species live in small islands away from any solid land. How did these tortoises end up in those exotic locales? They drifted away miles in the water and reached the island. 

It is not that tortoises do not like water. These creatures go to shallow water sources to cool off from time to time. They may also enjoy floating on a standstill water source like your bathtub. But never put the tortoises in any deep water places like backyard pond, lake, etc.

Turtles Can Swim But Tortoises Can’t: Why?

Turtles are the master swimmers. They can adapt well to both water and land. Even though turtles and tortoises are close relatives and belong to the same order (Testudines), they have slight differences in physique and habit.

Physiology is primarily responsible for why a tortoise can not swim but a turtle can. Considering all other reasons, I have narrowed down 3 factors. These things decide why a turtle swims while a tortoise does not.

1. Shapes Of Flippers And Feet

You know sea turtles have flippers, and freshwater turtles have webbed feet. Both are designed in such a way that the turtles can swim and move fast in the water.

The sea turtles use their front flippers as paddles and the rear ones as a source of generating thrust. The freshwater turtles apply the same technique with their webbed feet. These turtles paddle left and right, altering the legs.

Flippers and webbed feet of turtles make them fast, no doubt in that. But on land, the turtles can not move quickly with their webbed feet and flippers. Sea turtles barely leave the water and walk on the shore because they get tired of covering even a little distance on foot. The design of the feet is one of the reasons why turtles are slow on land but fast in the water.

On the other hand, tortoises are known as land turtles. It is because these creatures spend their life on terrains, not in the water. Over the centuries, tortoises have evolved and ended up having strong, solid, and sturdy feet well-matched to walk on land.

Tortoise feet have similarities with elephant feet. Their feet are short and thick, yet the tortoises can stretch them out to a small distance. Also, tortoises have short nails that do not disturb them while traversing uneven terrains.

In short, the tortoise feet are explicitly designed to walk on lands. Unlike turtle flippers or webbed feet, the tortoises are unable to paddle or produce a thrust in the water with their short, thick feet. Hence, tortoises can not swim.

2. Shapes Of The Shells

The shape of the shell is the primary difference between turtles and tortoises. The turtles have light, flat, and streamlined shells. The advantage of such aerodynamic carapaces is they can cut through water fast.

When the turtles swim, the exotic shaped shells do not block water. Instead, their shells minimize the drag fraction between the carapace and water, which hamper the motion. As a result, turtles swim swiftly, even in deep water.

On the other hand, tortoises own bulky and high-dome shaped shells. While streamlined aerodynamic shells reduce drag fraction, the domed shape shells involve more water. Hence, the tortoises can not swim like turtles. Due to the heavy and pyramid-like shells, tortoises experience challenges to maintain a balance in the water.

Experts believe shedding is the reason why turtles own a slippery and streamlined shell. With growing age, turtles shed their scutes and have new plates. It prevents their shell from shaping into a pyramid or dome.

However, land turtles or tortoises do not shed their scutes. So, the shells get higher and turn into a pyramid shape. With time, the outer layer of the tortoise shell wears off.

3. Natural Habitat

The place you are born and raised will play a preeminent role in your behavior and characteristics. Most turtles, aquatic and semi-aquatic, grow up in a waterbody. So, they learn how to swim or stay underwater naturally.

On the contrary, tortoises are adapted to the land environment. They move effortlessly on the lands and forests with short, thick, elephant-like feet. The domed shells and sharp claws of the tortoises have been evolved in such a way that they can fight any predators on land.

Tortoises are more comfortable on terrains than on the water. Hence, their natural habitat is mostly land areas. The surroundings are one of the main reasons why a tortoise can not swim.

Tortoises Float Instead Of Swimming

I have mentioned that tortoises float or drift in the water. Their lung capacity for air aids them in keeping a minimum balance to stay on the water surface. If the tortoises were unable to float, they would drown underwater instantly.

I have seen tortoises throwing their legs to use them as pedals. But the truth is, tortoises do not have any control over their bodies while in water. A tortoise floats as long as it is in calm water. The fast-flowing water sources are not ideal for these creatures.

Some tortoise species are not even good at floating. They avoid water at any cost.

Can A Tortoise Drown?

A tortoise drowns more quickly and easily than turtles. Generally, turtles drown if they get stuck or run out of breath. Imagine, if the master swimmer like turtles can drown, the tortoises hardly stand any chance.

You already know that tortoises can float, but not all species. In still water, these creatures float by balancing their weight and size ratio. But in a fast-flowing river, the task becomes impossible. When a tortoise is unable to float, it will drown for sure.

How Long Can A Tortoise Hold Its Breath Underwater?

Tortoise can hardly survive 2 to 3 minutes underwater holding the breath. After that, it will start struggling to keep its head above the water surface. Without any support or help, the tortoise will drown.

Generally, turtles can hold their breath for on average 30 to 45 minutes underwater. Unlike turtles, tortoises are not so comfortable in the water, and their lungs are not suitable for underwater breathing.

Some people claim that tortoises can survive 30 minutes underwater. According to a report, a tortoise drowned and was rescued alive after an hour of the incident.

Another story suggests that once, a tortoise got stuck in a deep puddle. It was raining cats and dogs that day, so the rescue team arrived 20 minutes later. They found the creature alive in the pond.

What Happens If You Throw A Tortoise In Water?

If you throw a tortoise in deep water, it will struggle hard to come to the surface and keep its head above the water. With luck, the tortoise may float or drift away with the current and bump on land. Otherwise, the tortoise will sink and die.

Remember, tortoises can float only in standstill water. If you toss the creature in an ocean, it will drown quickly.

Gopher tortoise

People Are Mistakenly Drowning Tortoises

Turtles and tortoises are close relatives. At the early stage of a tortoise’s life, it looks much similar to baby turtles. As a result, people often mistake them for turtles and throw them at the ocean or lake.

Tossing tortoises mistakenly have been reported more than once. At last, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission came forward with the slogan, “all turtles are not equal”.

The organization is creating an awareness among the people not to throw all turtles in the ocean. It is because tortoises can not swim, and your single mistake will kill an innocent creature.

Gopher tortoises and other species dwell around the sea turtle nests. While baby sea turtles run towards the ocean, the tortoises take a stroll at the beach. If you want to help a turtle or a tortoise, observe its shell and limb closely. Sea turtles have flippers, and land tortoises have clawed toes.

Get the difference between turtles and tortoises from here.

Can You Save A Drowning Tortoise?

People often throw tortoises in the water, mistaking them as turtles. In those cases, tortoises may end up sinking in the water. Again, sometimes, pet turtles accidentally fall into the water.

You can save a downing tortoise with first aid. To offer any treatment, first, you have to understand the condition of your tortoise.

Allow me to elaborate on the whole situation in simple words.

In medical terms, drowning is referred to as asphyxiation. It is a condition, which occurs due to the submersion of liquid in the lung. If a tortoise is submerged in the water for a long time, it leads to severe conditions. Such as,

  1. Anoxia: The lung of the tortoise floods with liquid. The creature feels the shortage of oxygen and struggles to breathe.
  2. Ventricular fibrillation: Heart muscles beat out of order. The rate of blood flowing to the heart decreases.

If the tortoise has swallowed a large amount of water, it will exhibit the following symptoms. Such as,

  • Unconscious
  • Absent respiration 
  • Cold
  • Falling pulse
  • Flaccid
  • Blue from the lack of oxygen

As a part of the treatment, firstly, hold the tortoise upside down. Open its mouth and press into the flank. Some water will drip from the tortoise’s mouth.

You know tortoises do not follow the same breathing mechanism as most reptiles due to the fusion of ribs with the shells. They enlarge their body cavity by contracting the flanks.

For exhalation, the tortoises contract the remaining two muscles and relax the first two. It forces the viscera upwards in the direction of the lung. Thus, to remove water from the lung, pressing with fingers into the flank works.

Next, shut the mouth of the tortoise and hold it tightly. Blow into the nostril with high pressure. It may inflate the lung, and the heart of the tortoise may start beating again. Performing the task 10 to 20 times per minute will work to overcome anoxia.

If you do not see any progress, go to the nearest vet. Sometimes the stomach of the tortoise distends with water. In that case, the vet will remove the water using a tube.

The survived tortoises stay in a vulnerable condition for the next couple of weeks. The vet may prescribe antibiotics, steroids for shocks, and so on. The pet must stay under observation and constant care.

Do not declare a drowned tortoise dead just after rescuing it. Tortoises have proved to survive without oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes. Also, the signs of death are not reliable in this case.

Conclusion

Tortoises can not swim, but they barely manage to float in still water. Throwing a tortoise in a water source might be the end of its life. Check a rescued turtle or tortoise to avoid any confusion. If you find any drowned tortoise, provide it treatment following the steps discussed above.

Muntaseer Rahman

I have been keeping turtles as a pet for many years now. I’ve fallen in love with these cute pets from the moment I saw them. That’s why I am writing articles to share my turtle keeping knowledge with you.

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