Range:

All continents except Antarctica

Habitat:

Aquatic species are found in oceans, swamps, freshwater lakes, ponds, and streams; terrestrial species are found in deserts, forests, and grasslands.

Turtle, tortoise, and terrapin: what’s the difference?

All turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are reptiles. Scientists often refer to them as chelonians, because they are in the taxonomic order called Chelonia (from the Greek word for tortoise). They all have scales, lay eggs, and are ectothermic; they vary in size from fitting in your hand to about 1,800 pounds (817 kilograms). Chelonians live everywhere from deserts to oceans to backyard creeks. So why are there different names? Those common names usually refer to differences in where the species live and how they use their habitat.

Types of chelonians

Here are some generally accepted differences between the types of chelonians:

Turtle— Spends most of its life in the water. Turtles tend to have webbed feet for swimming. Sea turtles (Cheloniidae family) are especially adapted for an aquatic life, with long feet that form flippers and a streamlined body shape. They rarely leave the ocean, except when the females come ashore to lay their eggs, although some species, such as the green sea turtle, do come out on reefs and beaches to bask. Other turtles live in fresh water, like ponds and lakes. They swim, but they also climb out onto banks, logs, or rocks to bask in the sun. In cold weather, they may burrow into the mud, where they go into torpor until spring brings warm weather again.

Tortoise— A land-dweller that eats low-growing shrubs, grasses, and even cactus. Tortoises do not have webbed feet; their feet are round and stumpy for walking on land. Tortoises that live in hot, dry habitats use their strong forelimbs to dig burrows. Then, when it’s too hot in the sun, they slip underground.

Terrapin— Spends its time both on land and in water, but it always lives near water, along rivers, ponds, and lakes. Terrapins are often found in brackish, swampy areas. The word “terrapin” comes from an Algonquian word for turtle.

Once you see these amazing reptiles in action, we think you’ll agree that conservation efforts to save them are important so they will be around for many, many more years to come.

The fastest turtle is the leatherback turtle—one was clocked swimming at 22 miles per hour (35 kilometers per hour).
Many aquatic turtles lie in wait for a fish to come by and then suddenly open their mouth wide and expand their throat, which sucks in their meal.
Some turtles clean each other. One turtle uses its jaws to pull algae and loose pieces of shell off the other, and then they switch places.
Some aquatic turtles have a long neck that allows them to “snorkel” while swimming, with just the nostrils above the water.
The alligator snapping turtle wriggles a small, pink growth on its tongue as a “lure” to attract fish.
The Pacific pond turtle is the only freshwater turtle native to San Diego County.
The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the largest of the softshell turtle species, with a shell measuring up to 3.6 feet (1.09 meters) across and weighing up to 309 lbs (140 kg).
Roti Island snake-necked turtles occur only on Roti Island, a 62-square-mile (161 square kilometers) island in Indonesia.
Tortoises, such as the Galápagos tortoise, can see in color and are especially attracted to red food items.
Egyptian tortoise hatchlings are often not much larger than a grape.
Humans walk at a speed a little less than 3 miles per hour (4.8 kilometers per hour); Galápagos tortoises travel at about 0.16 miles per hour (0.26 kilometers per hour).
The alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America.
Clutch sizes of over 200 eggs have been seen in the Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle and the green sea turtle.
Land tortoises are slow—some of them walk at only 0.5 miles per hour (0.8 kilometers per hour).

The San Diego Zoo has been home to numerous turtle and tortoise species since we opened for business in 1916. Our founder, Harry Wegeforth, M.D., was particularly fond of all things turtle and felt his zoo could never have enough of them! By 1934, the Zoo had more than 50 species from all parts of the globe, and students came from around the world to study the collection because of the wide variety represented here.

Today, our turtle collection can be found in various areas of the Zoo. We created a mixed-species habitat for Pacific pond turtles and other local reptiles in our Elephant Odyssey habitat, providing guests with an opportunity to learn about these San Diego natives.

Oldest residents

Some of the Zoo’s oldest animals make their home in the Fetter Family Galápagos Tortoise Exhibit, which opened in September 2010. Visitors love these slow and steady giants for good reason—they are fascinating! Galápagos tortoises have been the cornerstones of our history: the Zoo has been home to a herd of them since 1928, when the first ones arrived from the Galápagos Islands. Currently, our herd numbers 17, including 10 of the original tortoises, which are all more than 100 years old! You can spot these pioneers for yourself when you visit the exhibit—just check the numbers painted on their shells. Males have white numbers and females have red. Look for numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 23, and 29!

Reptile Walk

Be sure to check out the Zoo’s new Reptile Walk. Opened in July 2012, Reptile Walk leads you past animals that make their homes in various types of wetlands including marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens, and seasonal wetlands called vernal pools and washes. The exhibit describes threats that are drastically reducing populations of reptiles and amphibians. For example, the Roti Island snake-necked turtle is classified as critically endangered due in part to the pet trade. We have one of the most successful breeding programs for this species and have hatched more than 70 so far.

And many more...

In the Zoo’s Discovery Outpost, you’ll find a variety of turtles and tortoises. One watery exhibit is home to narrow-headed softshell turtles, painted and river terrapins, stripe-necked turtles, Fly River turtles, and a Malaysian giant turtle named “The General,” who was rescued from a shipment destined for an Asian food market. The turtles in this large pond can be seen swimming around the exhibit, especially through the underwater viewing window on the lower lever. When not swimming, they often practice their “submarine’ imitation, rising slowly to the surface to take a breath, then sinking again in exactly the same spot as bubbles come up around them.

In Lost Forest, you’ll find painted and Bornean river terrapins as well as Chinese stripe-necked, Fly River, pond, flapshell, short-necked, snake-necked, and narrow-headed softshell turtles. And in the Zoo’s Reptile House, you’ll find our alligator snapping turtles. They are all great fun to watch!

People and turtles

Sometimes people build roads, homes, and hotels at the edges of lakes, rivers, and seas where turtles come to lay their eggs. This can really confuse turtles, and they may not lay eggs as a result; that, of course, means fewer baby turtles. Trash in the oceans, like fishing nets and lines and plastic bags, can entangle and kill sea turtles. Slow-moving tortoises are easily caught for food or as “pets.” Chinese people eat enormous quantities of turtles; more than 10 million turtles are exported to China and 180 million Chinese softshell turtles are farm raised each year for consumption in China.

All over the world, habitats are being destroyed or polluted. In the U.S., for example, the loss of streamside habitats everywhere is hurting turtle populations. Off-road vehicles in the desert are destroying desert tortoise habitats, and urban rain run-off is carrying trash and poison into lakes, streams, and creeks.

Help is on the way

So what’s being done? Many governments as well as zoos and wildlife organizations are coming together to try to save the world’s turtles. Governments are also starting to work together to enforce turtle export laws and to police the markets in Asia where turtles are sold and traded.

Turtle Survival Alliance

The Roti Island snake-necked turtle has been heavily exploited by the pet trade and is now virtually extinct in the wild. The San Diego Zoo established a breeding group of these endangered turtles and partners with the Turtle Survival Alliance in Europe. In 2005, we hatched the first of several clutches of eggs at our reptile facility, producing 15 offspring.

The majority of the most critically endangered turtles in the world are found in Madagascar and Southeast Asia. San Diego Zoo Global, the Turtle Survival Alliance, and the Wildlife Conservation Society have created a global conservation program for freshwater turtles and tortoises. We have conservationists currently guiding conservation programs for giant river turtles in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Malaysia, and doing fieldwork on critically endangered turtle species in Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam. Significant progress toward preventing the extinction of many of the 300 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises is on the horizon.

Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

The local population of desert tortoises in the nearby Mojave Desert is estimated to have declined as much as 90 percent in the past 20 years. San Diego Zoo Global operates the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, Nevada. Each year, about 1,000 desert tortoises end up at the DTCC. Many suffer from improper diet and care, including lack of sunlight. The DTCC is the only authorized organization permitted to take in these animals, rehabilitate them, and legally return healthy individuals to the wild through a structured research program to ensure their success.

In April 2011, 36 desert tortoises were returned to the Nevada desert. Each tortoise carries a VHS radio transmitter on its back so that our researchers can gather data about their movements and habitat choices. Please don’t take home—or even pick up—any desert tortoises you find because they are a threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Taking, harming, and even approaching these reptiles in the wild is illegal, and keeping them as pets is strictly regulated by the California Department of Fish and Game and the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Our own backyard

In our own backyard, we are working to save local southwestern pond turtles, San Diego’s only native freshwater turtle. Normally found in pools within natural streams and sloughs, pond turtles are becoming rare within coastal southern California. Among the nonnative species that compete with pond turtles for food, or might eat them, are green sunfish, American bullfrogs, African clawed frogs, red-eared sliders, and crayfish.

San Diego Zoo Global, U.S. Geological Survey, San Diego Association of Governments, and the California Department of Fish and Game kicked off a joint project in 2009 to help this species. As a part of this study, researchers brought female turtles from the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve to the Zoo in 2009 and 2010. The females laid their eggs at the Zoo and then were returned to the reserve. Ten of the eggs hatched. After nonnative predators were removed, five of the juveniles were released into the Reserve in July 2013. We also have 12 pond turtles on exhibit in our Elephant Odyssey habitat at the Zoo that are not part of this study but are serving as educational ambassadors for this project and the species.

We hope that learning about turtles inspires you to help conserve species in your own backyard by not releasing unwanted pet turtles, like red-eared sliders, and helping to keep local watersheds clean. We encourage you to join local volunteer organizations that help restore local watersheds by removing exotic plant species and trash.