There are a few animals that at first glance resemble turtles, but upon closer inspection are actually different species. Turtles belong to the order Testudines and have a few defining features like a shell, a beak, and typically walk on four legs. However, there are some imposters out there in the animal kingdom that look turtle-like but are not actually turtles. These turtle wannabes include certain tortoises, terrapins, and even some mammals and reptiles that have evolved turtle-like traits and appearances.
In this article, we will explore some of the most common animals that get mistaken for turtles, compare their similarities and differences, and provide tips on how to tell them apart. Proper identification is important for conservation efforts as well as simply satisfying one’s curiosity when encountering a shelled creature. Read on to become a turtle lookalike expert!
One of the most common turtle imposters is actually a close relative – the tortoise. Tortoises belong to the same order Testudines as turtles, but they are classified in a different suborder called Cryptodira. There are around 50 species of tortoise, and they share many similar traits with turtles including protective shells, sturdy limbs, and toothless beaks.
So what is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise then? Here are some key distinguishing features:
|Aquatic – spends time in water||Terrestrial – lives exclusively on land|
|Has webbed feet for swimming||Has elephantine feet for walking|
|Shell is more streamlined and flattened||Shell is higher domed|
|Omnivorous diet||Herbivorous diet|
As you can see, tortoises are adapted for a life spent entirely on land while turtles frequent aquatic environments. Tortoises have domed shells to provide more protection, sturdy elephant-like feet without webbing, and a vegetarian diet. Turtles have flatter shells and webbed appendages for ease of movement in the water and are omnivores.
Some examples of tortoises include the Sulcata Tortoise, Indian Star Tortoise, and Galapagos Tortoise. These species can be very long-lived with lifespans over 100 years! Their terrestrial lifestyle means they move quite slowly on land compared to more agile aquatic turtles who are adept swimmers.
So while that lumbering land reptile may look like a turtle, check the feet and shell shape for clues that it is actually a tortoise. These ancient creatures have inhabited earth alongside turtles for millions of years.
Terrapins are another shelled reptile that often gets lumped together with turtles. However, terrapins are actually more closely related to pond and marsh turtles than land tortoises. The key distinction is that terrapins inhabit brackish waters – a mix of fresh and salt water – near coastal areas. There are 7 extant species of terrapin that live in these tidal marsh habitats.
Some standout features of terrapins:
|Lives in brackish coastal waters||Freshwater or marine environments|
|Webbed feet with strong claws||More fully webbed feet|
|Smaller average size||Varies greatly in size|
|Omnivorous scavengers||Omnivorous diet|
Terrapins have partially webbed feet with strong claws suited to muddy marsh environments. They are smaller on average than some turtles, topping out around 5-9 inches in shell length. Their diet consists of mollusks, crustaceans, worms, fish, and even carrion when available.
Some examples of terrapin species include Diamondback Terrapins and Map Turtles found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. They fill an ecological niche between sea turtles and freshwater turtles in coastal habitats.
So if you spot a small turtle-like creature with strong claws in a salt marsh, it’s likely a terrapin. They are the middle ground linking marine turtles to their freshwater cousins!
Box turtles get their common name from their distinct hinged shell which allows them to completely enclose their bodies for protection. They are predominantly terrestrial turtles in the genus Terrapene native to North America. And while they certainly look and act very turtle-like, they are actually more closely related to tortoises based on genetic studies.
Some ways to distinguish box turtles:
|Hinged plastron to fully enclose||Plastron rigidly affixed to carapace|
|High domed shell||Flatter streamlined shell|
|Primarily terrestrial but enters water||Fully aquatic to semi-aquatic|
|Omnivorous opportunistic feeders||Omnivorous habitat dependent diet|
Box turtle shells cannot be fully sealed airtight like tortoise shells, so they will still need access to water sources. But their hinged shells and ability to completely withdraw their head and limbs provides remarkable protection.
Common box turtle species include the Eastern Box Turtle, Ornate Box Turtle, and Florida Box Turtle. They tend to have smaller ranges and be more localized than widespread turtle species.
Box turtles demonstrate just how blurry the lines between turtles and tortoises can be. If you see a turtle with a hinged shell wandering around on land, it’s likely a box turtle – the halfway point between aquatic turtles and terrestrial tortoises.
You might come across an unusual smooth, leathery-looking turtle basking by the water and mistake it for some sort of weird mutant lizard. But it’s actually just a softshell turtle! Softshells belong to the family Trionychidae and occur in North America, Africa, Asia, and New Guinea.
Softshells have numerous adaptations that set them apart from conventional hard-shelled turtles:
|Leathery carapace covered in skin||Hard protective carapace|
|Flatter, more streamlined shell||Rigid domed shell|
|Long extendable neck||Shorter fixed neck|
|Webbed feet with sharp claws||Broad fully webbed feet|
|Carnivorous habits||Omnivorous habits|
These differences all aid softshells in their more aquatic streamlined lifestyle. The smooth shell and extendable neck allow for decreased drag while swimming and ease of ambushing prey. The sharp claws provide traction against currents and ability to latch onto prey.
Common softshell species include the Spiny Softshell, Florida Softshell, and Chinese Softshell. They occupy a niche more similar to sea turtles with their aquatic agility and carnivorous tastes.
So if you come across what looks like a strange half-lizard half-turtle, it’s just a softshell doing its thing as one of nature’s unique turtle variants.
This next imposter stretches the limits of what can be considered turtle-like in appearance. Native to South America, Matamata Turtles are a highly distinct and specialized species with several standout features:
|Triangular head with tubular snout||Rounded head and beak|
|Rough textured carapace||Smooth carapace|
|Reduced webbing on feet||Fully webbed feet|
|Suction feeding||Jaw-based feeding|
Matamatas have developed an appearance that resembles fallen leaves and woody debris in their forest floor habitat. Their rough shell, mottled coloration, and specialized head allow them to lay in wait perfectly camouflaged for ambushing fish and invertebrates.
They have a bizarre appearance like no other turtle, but they are still unmistakably a highly adapted member of the turtle family. Other turtles may appear sculpted from a basic archetype – Matamatas chose a different mold entirely.
Shifting gears from reptiles to mammals, we come to another frequent turtle imposter – the armadillo. Found throughout Central and South America, armadillos belong to the order Cingulata separate from turtles. But their bony armor shells provide a similar defensive function to the shells of turtles.
Some main differences between armadillos and turtles:
|Give live birth||Lay eggs|
|Constant body temperature||Variable temperature|
|Covered in hair||Covered in scales|
The armadillo shell is made up of overlapping bony plates covered in leathery skin, as opposed to the fused bony plates that make up turtle shells. Armadillos also walk with a more upright gait compared to the lower crawled posture of turtle and tortoises.
The most widespread armadillo is the iconic Nine-banded Armadillo, but there are around 20 species throughout the Americas. Their armor helps protect them against predators, thorns, and adverse environmental conditions.
So while an armadillo and turtle may both be armored creatures, mammals have very distinct traits from reptiles. Just check for hair and warm blooded stature rather than scales and a shell.
From here our turtle lookalikes journey into more obscure territory with the moon rat. Native to Indonesia, these unusual rodents have a regenerative ability that gives them a plated appearance reminscient of a turtle shell.
Some ways to distinguish moon rats:
|Omnivorous rodent diet||Omnivorous reptile diet|
|Fur coat||Scale skin|
|Scars harden into plates||Shell fused from ribs|
|Long furry tail||Short tail hidden by shell|
Moon rats have specialized skin cells that heal injured areas by forming hardened scars protective scutes that resemble a shell. But despite this turtle-like armor, moon rats have distinctly rodent-like bodies and habits.
They are little studied rare creatures last documented by scientists in the 1890s. Moon rats are an example of evolutionary convergence where distantly related organisms evolve similar traits for survival – in this case an armored appearance.
So this agent of confusion is certainly a rodent and not a reptile beneath that shell facade.
Continuing with obscure mammals, pangolins bear more than a passing resemblance to turtles or armadillos. These toothless anteaters have bodies covered in overlapping keratin scales adding to their curiosity. Native to Africa and Asia, pangolins fill an ecological niche similar to anteaters and armadillos.
Some differentiating pangolin features:
|Keratin scales||Bony scales|
|Terrestrial habitat||Aquatic/marine habitats|
|Insectivorous diet||Omnivorous diet|
The keratin scales covering a pangolin offer protection akin to a turtle’s shell but are not directly homologous structures. Pangolins also lack the quadruple limb configuration of turtle’s with their sprawled posture.
However, the way pangolins can curl into a ball emulates how some turtles retract their head for defense. And their scales convergently evolved a similar protective function as turtle shells even if their composition differs.
There are eight pangolin species ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered status due to habitat loss and poaching pressures. But rest assured, as unusual as pangolins appear, they are still mammals rather than reptiles beneath those keratin tiles.
Other Turtle Mimics
Beyond the examples described here, there are a number of other creatures that have evolved to resemble turtles or tortoises in various ways. For instance:
– Spider Tortoise – A web-footed Madagascan radiated tortoise that fills an aquatic niche.
– Malayan Leaf Turtle – A reptile with extensive skin flaps and projections that resemble leaves.
– Beetle Turtles – Many insects like Jewel Beetles and Tortoise Beetles have coloration or shell-like elytra that provide camouflage.
– Sea Turtles/Whales – Convergent evolution has led to streamlined shells/bodies and flippered limbs adapted for aquatic life.
Mimicry provides an advantage to organisms sharing habitats with turtles and tortoises. By evolving turtle-like traits they gain protective coloration or armor and avoid predation. This demonstrates just how effective the turtle body plan is in certain environments.
We’ve covered a diverse range of turtle impersonators from tortoises and terrapins very closely related to turtles, to obscure mammals and insects that have evolved turtle-like traits through convergent evolution. This just shows how distinctive the turtle form is with its iconic protective shell and compact body.
Turtles occupy an important niche in many environments, leading other organisms to emulate their successful adaptations. But with careful observation of details like scales vs. fur, shell structure, feet, and habitat, it is possible to distinguish imposters from actual turtles.
So next time you see a tortoise plodding through a field, armadillo scuttling over a road, or strange shell-covered creature, consider whether it is fulfilling the essence of being a true turtle. Their distinctive status sets them apart as one of nature’s most enduring designs.