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Are Box Turtles Tortoises? Why Is A Box Turtle Not A Tortoise

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The box turtle is a species of turtle commonly found in North America. They both belong to the family Emydidae, which means they are reptiles.

However, this is the main difference between them and a tortoise, as a tortoise belongs to the family of Testudinidae. 

Box turtle

Box turtles are often confused with tortoises because they look similar. Both turtles have shells and legs, but box turtles have a rounder body shape and longer tails. The head is also more triangular than oval.

In this article, we look at the differences between a box turtle and a terrapin in closer detail to help you distinguish between the two, despite how similar they may be.

What Are Box Turtles?

A box turtle is an aquatic reptile that belongs to the family Emydidae. It has a hard shell made from keratin or protein, and it uses its tail as a third leg.

Box turtles can grow up to 8.5 inches long and weigh about 1-2 pounds. They eat worms, insects, snails, slugs, small fish, frogs, crayfish, and other invertebrates.

Box turtles live on land for only part of their lives. When they hatch, they spend most of their time in the water. As adults, they return to the water to lay eggs.

Box turtles are native to the southeastern United States, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

How Do I Recognize A Box Turtle?

You might not be able to tell a box turtle from a tortoise just by looking at them. But there are some ways to identify a box turtle:

1. Look for a rounded body shape.

2. Look for a long neck.

3. Look for a short tail.

4. Look for a dome-shaped, smooth shell.

5. Look for dark brown coloration.

What Is A Tortoise?

Tortoises are members of the suborder Chelonii within the order Testudines. This group includes most living turtles.

Tortoises have thick, leathery skin that covers their bodies. Their shells are usually covered with scales.

Tortoises can grow up to 4 feet long and weigh over 600 pounds. They feed on plants, roots, fruits, seeds, and insects.

Tortoise populations are declining worldwide due to habitat loss and poaching. Their habitats include deserts, savannas, grasslands, forests, swamps, wetlands, and urban areas.

What Are The Differences Between Box Turtles and Tortoises?

Tortoises and box turtles are closely related, and many people believe that they should be grouped under one name. However, there are some differences between these two groups of animals.

As we have mentioned, box turtles belong to the family Emydidae, and a tortoise belongs to the family of Testudinidae. Although families are similar, they do have distinct differences.

Below we have outlined some of these differences to help you with any confusion you had surrounding the species.

It’s important to remember a lot of these differences are fundamental differences between turtle species and tortoises, so keep this in mind whenever you are trying to distinguish a tortoise from another species of turtle.

1. Box turtles can be distinguished from tortoises by their lack of an air bladder. This allows them to live underwater for long periods without drowning.

They always live near a water source and need to soak their body in water. Tortoises are land dwellers and live far from water sources. They may occasionally take a drink or a bath, however.

2. A box turtle has webbed feet they use for swimming, but tortoises have stumpy feet which allow them to walk on the land easier.

3. Tortoises are much larger than box turtles. The largest tortoise on record is named Esmeralda, the heaviest free-roaming tortoise. He is around 170 years old and weighs over 670 pounds. A box turtle is a lot smaller and can be found in various sizes depending on the species.

4. Tortoises have a shell that covers most of their bodies except for the front part of their heads, necks, and backs. Their shells are usually brown or black in color and round in shape. 

Some tortoises have white spots on their shells. Box turtles have shells that are dome-shaped and are much harder. Box turtles have soft, leathery skin that covers their entire bodies except for their eyes, ears, and tail.

Their shells are usually olive or gray. Most box turtles have large, rounded heads.

5. Tortoises have a hard, bony covering called a carapace that protects their back and sides. These shells are usually greenish or yellowish.

There may be dark stripes on the top side of the carapace. Box turtles have a soft, flexible neck covered by a thin layer of skin. Their tails are shorter than those of tortoises.

6. Box turtles are herbivores, whereas tortoises are omnivores. Box turtles eat leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, and other plant material. Tortoises eat insects, worms, snails, small fish, frogs, lizards, birds, and even baby mammals. However, they are land dwellers and commonly eat low plants such as grass.

7. Box turtles are active during the day while tortoises are mostly inactive during the day.

Similarities Between The Animals

Both box turtles and tortoises lay eggs. They also both bury their eggs in the soil after laying them. Tortoise hatchlings emerge from their eggs after about 60 days. Box turtles hatch after approximately 60-90 days.

Both belong to the Chelonia order

Both bask in the sun or light source

Neither a box turtle nor a tortoise has teeth

Although their food differs slightly, they do have similar habits and feeding rituals

Recognizing Box Turtles

Small box turtle

To help you distinguish a box turtle from another species of turtle, and most importantly a tortoise, below is a list of some of the most common types of box turtles and their features.

Three-Toed Box Turtle

The three-toed box turtle’s shell ranges in color from tan to cream with darker markings. They have orange spots on their limbs and head.

They have three toes on every foot.

They usually have a redhead

They can be found in the US

Gulf Coast Box Turtle

The Gulf Coast Box Turtle is the largest of the species

The species is semi-aquatic.

It has a darker shell than other species but is decorated with marginal scutes.

It has four toes on every foot.

It can be found from Louisiana to northern Florida.

Eastern Box Turtle

This type of box turtle has a brownish-gray shell with black blotches. It also has yellow or orange spots in the shell.

It has four toes on each foot.

They have a long body and short legs.

They live in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and other parts of the Eastern US

Coahulian Box Turtle

This box turtle has dark skin and often lives in the water

Instead of the US, it can be found in Coahuila, Mexico

Final Thoughts

We hope after reading this article you have learned everything you need to know about the tortoise and the box turtle.

Although they have similarities, like any species of turtle and tortoise, they have distinct differences and we hope this article has cleared up the confusion.

Identifying a box turtle can be tricky, but if you know what to look for, it isn’t as hard as you first may think.


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About the author


Kerry White is an avid dog lover and writer, knowing all there is to know about our furry friends. Kerry has been writing for PetDT for three years now, wanting to use her knowledge for good and share everything she can with new dog owners.Kerry has two dogs herself - a German shepherd called Banjo and a chocolate labrador called Buttons. Kerry knows more than anyone how adjusting to new life with a puppy can turn your life upside down, and she wants to ease some of the burdens through her articles.