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Can Turtles Live on Land? Vet-Approved Facts & FAQ (With Comparison Table)

Ed Malaker

By Ed Malaker

spotted turtle

Vet approved

Dr. Karyn Kanowski Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Karyn Kanowski

BVSc MRCVS (Veterinarian)

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

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Turtles can make great pets, and we can also see them when we enjoy outdoor activities, which can cause many people to wonder if they can live on land. The short answer is yes. There are many terrestrial turtles that we can see in the wild and even keep as pets. Keep reading as we compare the different types of turtles and explain the difference between aquatic and terrestrial turtles so you can identify them.

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Comparison Table: Aquatic vs. Terrestrial Turtles

There are many physical differences between aquatic and land-based turtles that can make it easier to identify them. For instance, aquatic turtles have flippers on their feet, which make it easier for them to swim. Land-based turtles don’t have flippers but can pull themselves into their shell to hide from predators, unlike some aquatic turtles. Here is a chart that compares the two:

Metric Aquatic Turtles Terrestrial Turtles
Habitat Primarily water bodies, such as rivers, lakes, ponds, and oceans Land-based habitats, including forests, grasslands, and deserts
Locomotion Flippers for swimming Feet with claws for digging
Respiratory System Breathe through lungs, with some having adaptations to absorb oxygen through their cloaca Breathe through lungs
Shell Shape Streamlined, flat, and more hydrodynamic for swimming Dome shaped, robust, and often featuring patterns and colors
Diet Omnivorous, feeding on aquatic plants, insects, and small aquatic animals Omnivorous or Herbivorous, consuming both plant matter and animal protein

one swimming marine turtle underwater in aquarium tank
Image Credit: Nerify, Shutterstock

Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins

You will often see these terms used interchangeably, but it is helpful to know which is which, but it can seem a bit confusing.

All tortoises and terrapins are turtles. They are members of the Order Testudina (which includes some extinct species), and are also known as Chelonians. Informally, when talking about these shelled reptiles, most people use these distinctions:

  • Turtle – aquatic, having flippers or webbed feet. Sometimes used to describe only sea turtles, but also all turtles, tortoises and terrapins
  • Tortoise – terrestrial, feet not flippers
  • Terrapins – freshwater turtles, webbed feet

So as you can see, all tortoises and terrapins are turtles, but it is useful to know which type we are referring to.

Aquatic Turtles

Aquatic turtles are well-suited for life in the water. They can inhabit various aquatic environments, including rivers, lakes, ponds, and oceans. Their streamlined, flat shells and paddle-shaped limbs enable them to navigate through water easily. They breathe using their lungs, and although they have a large lung capacity, they must return to the surface to get air. Certain species can absorb oxygen directly from the water, which helps them stay under longer, and some can even remain underwater for several hours to sleep. In some species, it also enables them to brumate (reptile hibernation) under frozen water over winter. Their diet is primarily omnivorous, and they mainly eat insects; small aquatic animals like fish, frogs, worms, etc.; and aquatic plants, and as juveniles are largely carnivorous. Many have specialized adaptations like sharp beaks, which help them capture food underwater. They will survive on land, but not long term.

Red-eared slider swimming near the surface of his aquarium surrounded by bubbles
Image Credit: Rob Jump, Shutterstock

Popular Pet Aquatic Turtles

Red-Eared Slider

Red-Eared Sliders are semi-aquatic and among the most popular pet turtles. They are native to the southern United States and get their name from the red patch behind each eye. These turtles have vibrant markings and are extremely adaptable to various aquatic habitats.

Painted Turtle

Painted Turtles are widespread in North America and have colorful and intricate shell patterns. They are excellent swimmers, and you will find them in ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers across America. They are also popular pets due to their colorful appearance.

Baby Painted turtle in the swamp
Image Credit: IHX, Shutterstock

Terrestrial Turtles

Terrestrial turtles, aka tortoises, have adapted to life on land. They can inhabit various land-based habitats, including forests, grasslands, and deserts, and to help them survive, they have different characteristics than aquatic turtles. Their shells tend to be more dome shaped and robust, providing enhanced protection from predators and environmental hazards, and they can pull their whole bodies into their shells. The shells of various species often feature intricate patterns and colors, making them visually appealing and a good choice for pets.

While their walking speed may not match the agility of their aquatic counterparts in water, terrestrial turtles have adapted well to navigating diverse terrains. Certain terrestrial turtle species have even developed specialized features, such as long legs and curved claws, that enable them to climb trees or dig burrows. Like aquatic turtles, terrestrial turtles breathe through their lungs, and they eat various plants, fruits, insects, worms, small vertebrates, and even carrion, depending on their environment.

an eastern box turtle on a pathway
Image Credit: Simply Photos, Shutterstock

Popular Terrestrial Turtles

Box Turtle

Box turtles are a group of land-dwelling turtles known for their ability to fully retract their head, limbs, and tail into their shell, protecting them from predators. Their domed shell is hinged at the bottom so they can close it tightly. You can find this species in various habitats across North America and Asia. Box turtles are popular pets due to their manageable size and intriguing behaviors.


Tortoises are terrestrial turtles characterized by their heavy, dome-shaped shells and herbivorous diets. You will find them in arid or semi-arid regions, as they have adapted to survive in dry climates. Popular tortoise species include the African Spurred Tortoise, the Sulcata Tortoise, and the Red-Footed Tortoise.

African Spurred (Sulcata) Tortoise
Image Credit: poeticpenguin, Shutterstock


Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Do Terrestrial Turtles Live?

The lifespan of terrestrial turtles can vary depending on the species and their specific care. On average, many terrestrial turtle species can live for several decades. Some species, like the tortoise, have the potential to live well over 50 years, with some individuals reaching over 100 years of age.

Jonathan, a Seychelles Giant Tortoise, is estimated to be around 200 years old, making him the oldest living animal on earth.

Can Terrestrial Turtles Swim?

Terrestrial turtles are not as proficient at swimming as their aquatic counterparts. While they may be able to swim to a certain extent, they enjoy life on land. Their limb structure and shell shape are better suited for walking or crawling than swimming in water, but they will manage to paddle back to dry land if needed.

African Spurred (Sulcata) Tortoise with the mouth open
Image Credit: Polbkt, Shutterstock

Can Aquatic Turtles Live in a Regular Fish Tank?

While you can initially house aquatic turtles in a fish tank, be aware that they have different needs than fish. Aquatic turtles require large enclosures with sufficient swimming, basking, and exploring spaces. A proper turtle tank should have a filtration system, a basking area with UVB lighting, and enough water that they can submerge and swim comfortably. Ideally, a dedicated turtle habitat or enclosed pond is best suited to keeping your terrapins happy and healthy.

How Often Do Aquatic Turtles Need to Bask?

Turtles are ectothermic, relying on external heat sources to regulate their body temperature. Basking is essential for them to thermoregulate and dry their shells. Most aquatic turtles will bask daily for several hours to absorb warmth and UVB rays, depending on the ambient temperature. Providing a basking area with an appropriate temperature gradient is crucial for their health and well-being.

Red-eared slider turtles in aquarium tank with UV light and filter
Image credit: TIPAKORN MAKORNSEN, Shutterstock


Many different turtle species prefer to live on land, including several species of tortoise and the popular Box Turtle, that many like to keep as pets. These turtles differ from aquatic varieties with their domed shells that they can retract into and their clawed feet that help them dig burrows. Many of these turtles also have colorful shells that help make them popular with children. Aquatic freshwater turtles, also known as terrapins, can also be colorful, but their shell is usually flatter and more streamlined to make swimming easier. They often have webbed feet, and some will have other adaptations, like a sharp, pointy jaw that helps them capture prey.

Featured Image Credit: Jay Ondreicka, Shutterstock

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