We were sitting alongside a stream in Wonderopolis the other day when we heard a squirrel, a badger, and a moose having an odd conversation:
Squirrel: Hey! Look at that turtle swimming in the water over there.
Badger: You mean the tortoise sunbathing on the shoreline?
Moose: No, I think he means that terrapin doing the backstroke.
Squirrel: You guys are nuts!
Turtles? Tortoises? Terrapins? What’s going on here? Are these completely different animals or are the squirrel, badger, and moose just using nicknames for the same animal?
Turtle, tortoise, and terrapin are all names for the hard-shelled, egg-laying reptiles in the taxonomic order Chelonia. Basically, they’re all turtles. The exact name used for a particular type of turtle, though, can vary depending upon where they live or where YOU live.
People in different parts of the world use different names depending upon the specific type of turtle they’re talking about. For example, the name “turtle” is used most widely and usually refers to those turtles that spend most of their lives in or near the water.
Turtle is often used to refer to sea turtles that rarely leave the ocean. Of course, turtle can also refer to the many types of turtles that live in fresh water, such as lakes or ponds.
The word “tortoise,” on the other hand, is usually used to refer to turtles that spend most of their time on land, eating shrubs and grasses. Unlike their aquatic relatives, tortoises don’t have webbed feet, since they don’t spend much, if any, time in the water.
So what about “terrapins”? Terrapins are turtles that spend time both on land and in brackish, swampy water. The word “terrapin” comes from an Algonquian Indian word meaning “a little turtle.”
Of course, these are all just generalizations and, depending upon where you live, these terms may be interchanged or used in different ways. Do you know what these animals are called where you live? If not, ask around. You might be surprised to learn what words different people use for different types of turtles!