Why Is A Box Turtle Not A Tortoise?

Why Is A Box Turtle Not A Tortoise

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Sharing is caring!

Many of us think, box turtles and tortoise are the same thing. There are some definite differences between a box turtle and a tortoise.

So why is a box turtle not a tortoise?

Box turtles are not tortoises because they belong to different families. Box turtles belong to the Emydidae family, along with pond and river turtles. In contrast, tortoises are in the Testudinidae family and are adapted for life on land.

Many of you may still wonder what the differences between a turtle and a tortoise are. Well, this article might clear all your confusions.

key takeaways

  • Box turtles belong to the Emydidae family, while tortoises belong to the Testudinidae family.
  • Box turtles are more comfortable living in or near water, unlike tortoises which are land dwellers.
  • The feet of box turtles are flattened or webbed for swimming, whereas tortoises have blunt and stumpy feet for walking on land.
  • A box turtle’s shell is hard and flatter, contrasting with the round and dome-shaped shell of a tortoise.
  • The diet of box turtles varies by species, often including plant leaves and small insects, while tortoises primarily feed on low plants like grass.
Box Turtle
African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) in the garden

Why Is A Box Turtle Not A Tortoise?

Box turtles are not tortoises, despite some similarities, due to several key differences:


Box turtles are usually found in moist and humid environments, often near water sources like ponds and marshes.

Tortoises, on the other hand, are predominantly land-dwellers, adapted to a range of terrestrial habitats but not aquatic or semi-aquatic environments.

See also  How To Take Care Of A Dehydrated Tortoise?

Physical Adaptations:

Box turtles have webbed feet and claws that are designed for digging and swimming, while tortoises have sturdy, columnar hind legs and elephantine feet adapted for walking on land.

Shell Shape:

Box turtles typically have a domed shell that is hinged at the bottom, allowing them to retract their head, arms, and legs completely for protection.

Tortoises have a more rounded and high-domed shell, which is not hinged in the same way.

Behavioral Differences:

Box turtles can be semi-aquatic and often enjoy soaking in water.

Tortoises are not swimmers; they drink and bathe, but they do not submerge themselves in water like box turtles can.

Dietary Habits:

While both are generally herbivorous, box turtles have a more varied diet and are often omnivorous, eating fruits, vegetables, meat, and insects.

Tortoises are primarily herbivores, consuming a diet of grasses, weeds, leafy greens, and sometimes fruit.

Geographic Distribution:

Box turtles are predominantly found in North America, whereas tortoises are distributed in many parts of the world, especially in Africa and Asia.

Size and Lifespan:

Typically, tortoises are larger and have a longer lifespan compared to box turtles. Some species of tortoises are among the longest-living animals on the planet.

Scientific Classification: Box Turtle vs Tortoise

Box Turtle Classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Testudines
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Genus: Terrapene
  • Species: This depends on the specific type of box turtle.

For instance, the common box turtle is classified as Terrapene carolina.

Tortoise Classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Testudines
  • Suborder: Cryptodira
  • Family: Testudinidae

The genus and species names vary depending on the specific type of tortoise.

For example, the Gopher Tortoise is classified as Gopherus polyphemus, while the Galápagos Tortoise is known as Chelonoidis nigra.

Differences Between A Turtle And A Tortoise

First of all, let’s find out what are the fundamental differences between a turtle and a tortoise.

Shell ShapeStreamlined, flatter shell for swimmingDome-shaped, heavier shell
HabitatMostly aquatic environments (freshwater or sea water)Terrestrial habitats, primarily in arid and semi-arid areas
Water DependencyHigh dependency on water for survivalDoes not require direct access to water, gets moisture from food
Leg and Foot StructureWebbed feet with long claws, better suited for swimmingStumpy, elephantine legs and feet, adapted for land
LifespanVaries widely, generally shorter than tortoisesGenerally longer, some species can live over 100 years
DietOmnivorous: includes aquatic vegetation, small fish, and insectsMostly herbivorous: grasses, weeds, leafy greens, and some fruits
Scientific OrderTestudinesTestudines
FamilyMultiple families (e.g., Cheloniidae for sea turtles, Emydidae for pond turtles)Testudinidae
Body Temperature RegulationEctothermic (cold-blooded)Ectothermic (cold-blooded)
DistributionWorldwide, in various aquatic environmentsPrimarily found in Africa and Asia, but also in other regions

Physical Differences Between A Box Turtle And A Tortoise

CharacteristicBox TurtleTortoise
Shell ShapeDome-shaped, hinged plastron allowing shell to close tightlyDome-shaped, high and rounded
SizeSmaller, usually 4-7 inches in lengthLarger, size varies widely among species
Leg and Foot StructureSturdy, clawed feet for digging, not suited for swimmingStumpy, elephantine legs and feet, adapted for land
Shell TextureRough, often with distinctive patterns or markingsGenerally smoother, may have growth rings
Head Size and ShapeSmaller head, rounded shapeLarger head, more pronounced shape
LifespanUp to 50 years in the wildGenerally longer, some species can live over 100 years
Habitat PreferencePrefer moist forested areas, but can adapt to various environmentsTerrestrial habitats, primarily in arid and semi-arid areas
Scientific OrderTestudinesTestudines
Body Temperature RegulationEctothermic (cold-blooded)Ectothermic (cold-blooded)
Geographical DistributionPrimarily found in North AmericaPrimarily found in Africa and Asia, but also in other regions

These differences can vary from subspecies to subspecies.

See also  Is My Tortoise Hibernating Or Dead?

Similarities Between A Box Turtle And A Tortoise

Box turtles and tortoises, while different in many aspects, do share some notable similarities:

Shell: Both box turtles and tortoises have a hard, protective shell. This shell is an integral part of their skeleton, offering protection from predators and environmental elements.

Diet: They are primarily herbivores, eating a variety of plants, fruits, and vegetables. However, some box turtles can be omnivorous, occasionally eating insects and small animals.

Reproduction: Both reproduce by laying eggs. They bury their eggs in the ground, where they incubate until hatching.

Lifespan: Both can live for many years, often exceeding several decades. Some tortoises are known to live over a century.

Habitat Preferences: While their specific habitat preferences differ, both box turtles and tortoises generally prefer environments where they can find adequate food, shelter, and basking areas.

Slow Movement: They are known for their slow and steady movement. This is partly due to their heavy shells and their metabolism.

Ectothermic (Cold-Blooded): Both are ectothermic, meaning they rely on external sources of heat to regulate their body temperature.

Solitary Nature: Generally, both box turtles and tortoises are solitary creatures, mostly interacting with others of their species during mating season.

Why are box turtles Called turtles?

Box turtles are classified as turtles due to several key characteristics they share with other members of the turtle family. Here are some reasons why box turtles are considered turtles:

Shell Structure:

Like all turtles, box turtles have a distinctive shell made up of a carapace (the top part) and a plastron (the bottom part). This shell is a key feature of turtles and is crucial for their protection.

See also  How To Setup The Perfect Indoor Box Turtle Habitat?

Anatomical Features:

Box turtles have physical traits typical of turtles, such as a beak-like mouth, no teeth, and sturdy, scaly legs. Their body structure is adapted for a slow-moving, terrestrial lifestyle, although they can also swim.

Taxonomic Classification:

Box turtles belong to the order Testudines, which encompasses all turtles. This order is characterized by species having a shell and other specific anatomical and physiological traits.

Ectothermic Metabolism:

Like other turtles, box turtles are ectotherms (cold-blooded), meaning they rely on external sources of heat to regulate their body temperature.

Reproductive Behavior:

Box turtles lay eggs, which is a common trait among turtles. They have similar reproductive and nesting behaviors to other turtle species.

Evolutionary History:

The evolutionary history and fossil records show that box turtles share a common ancestry with other turtles, indicating their inclusion in the broader turtle family.

How To Identify Box Turtle?

For some of you, it may sound challenging to identify the subspecies of box turtles. It is actually a simple task. By following some characteristics of a box turtle, you can distinguish its subspecies. Here I will demonstrate some aspects which might help you with this.

Three Toed Box Turtle

  • It has a tan or olive shell.
  • There are orange spots on its head and limbs.
  • It has three toes on each foot.
  • Male three toed box turtles tend to have a red head.
  • It can be found around the central US.

Eastern Box Turtle

  • It has a black or brown shell and body with yellow or orange spots.
  • It has four toes on each foot.
  • It can be found throughout the eastern US.

Gulf Coast Box Turtle

  • It is the largest of all box turtles.
  • It is semi aquatic.
  • It has a dark shell and body.
  • Its shell is decorated with flared marginal scutes.
  • It has four toes on each foot.
  • A gulf coast box turtle can be found from Louisiana to northern Florida.

Florida Box Turtle

  • Florida box turtle has a dark shell and body with yellow lines on them.
  • Some of them have yellow lines on the head too.
  • It has 3-4 toes on each foot.
  • It can be found in Georgia and Florida.

Ornate Box Turtle

  • It has yellow stripes on both upper and lower shell.
  • Male ornate box turtles are smaller in size and have red eyes.
  • Female ornate box turtles are larger than the male ones and have yellow eyes.
  • It is found in eastern Kansas.

Coahuilan Box Turtle

  • It has dark skin.
  • It tends to live in water.
  • This subspecies is found in Coahuila, Mexico.

In spite of having some similarities, a box turtle and a tortoise are considered different species. I have explained why and how to identify a box turtle. I hope this article has helped you to clear your confusion.

Sharing is caring!

About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


This site is owned and operated by Muntaseer Rahman. TheTurtleHub.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.