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!

39 Join the Discussion

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars  (16 votes, avg. 4.19 out of 5)
  1. Thoughts: I was really surprised that sea turtle spend little time in the water. (Lupe) I thought different names of turtles came from different regions or areas. (Andrew)

    Connections: This reminds me of Flat Rock Camp because I have a picture of me petting a turtle. (Briahna) This reminds me of Mother’s Day because I got my grandma a flag with a turtle on it. (Gabrielle)

    Predictions: How do doorbells work? (Shalize) Who is Marco Polo? (Maria) How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop? (Jake) Who invented “Knock Knock” jokes? (Gisselle)

    • Good morning, Mrs. Hess’ Class! Thanks for coming back to Wonder with us! We’re swimming with joy! :)

      It sounds like Lupe and Andrew have learned some cool new things about turtles today! Aren’t they fascinating? :)

      What great connections, Briahna and Gabrielle! From camp to Mother’s Day, we are always excited to hear how Wonder is everywhere! :)

      Shalize, Maria, Jake, and Gisselle: we LOVE your predictions for tomorrow! Keep on WONDERing! :)

    • Good morning, Ms. Bayko’s Class! Thanks for making us smile! We’re glad you’re back today! :)

      HOORAY for WONDERing about turtles, tortoises, terrapins… and for sharing your humorous prediction for the next Wonder! :)

  2. I love reptiles. I’m going to Florida soon, and I hope to see some turtles. I am going to an aquarium, so I”m sure I’ll see some turtles there.

    • WOW, we’re so excited for your trip to Florida, Wonder Friend Grant! We hope you see animals and reptiles of all sorts, including turtles! We Wonder if you have a favorite reptile? Will it be at the aquarium?

      Have a great time in Florida and tell us all about your awesome adventure! :)

  3. Hi Wonderopolis!

    Our class has many connections because we have seen turtles before!
    How did the camera get under the water for the video?
    We predict tomorrow’s wonder will be about Knock Knock jokes, a haunted house, hide and seek, scaring someone, knocking on a door, a stranger, a ghost, or an owl.

    • Good morning, Froggy1! How cool to know that so many of you have seen turtles before! They sure are WONDERful creatures! :)

      We are happy that you’ve been thinking about how we can check out the turtles underwater. Technology is a WONDERful thing, and there are cameras that are waterproof! This way, we can watch what’s happening under the sea!

      Thank you for sharing your comments and predictions with us. Great work using the context clues! :)

  4. There are many different types of turtles in the world.

    I saw a little turtle shell at the park.

    We wonder: What helps turtles swim so fast? I wonder about sharks. How do animals come alive? How are TV’s made?

    • We love your summary about what you learned today, Mrs. Glover’s awesome K-Class! We hope you continue to explore the awesome Wonder around you, just like our Wonder Friend did at the park!

      Turtles that spend lots of time in the water have webbed feet, which help them to be speedy swimmers! Check out Wonder #819– What is the Largest Shark? http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-the-largest-shark/ :)

  5. Wonderopolis I’m timing you to see how fast you will respond and can we be friends and what’s your favorite color.

    • Hey there, Mason! Thanks for visiting us today! We Wonder what you’ve learned from today’s turtle-riffic Wonder? We are so glad you shared your comment today, but we have lots of Wonder Friends to say hello to! We might not be able to respond to your comment immediately, but we will certainly say hello in due time! :)

  6. Hi Wonderopolis,

    Today’s Wonder of the Day was nice because we enjoyed watching the turtle swim around. One of our classmates has a pet turtle. We thought it was fascinating learning about turtles, tortoises and terrapins.

    The clue for tomorrow’s wonder makes us want to tell 100 knock-knock jokes!

    Turtle Lovers OUT!
    Ms. G’s Class

    • Hi Ms. G’s Class! It sounds like this Wonder was just perfect for you today! Thanks for coming out of your shell to say hello today! :)

      We are glad you learned something new with us, and perhaps you can learn even more about having a pet turtle from your WONDERful classmate! :)

      We are giggling as we read your awesome predictions! Check out our knock-knock Wonder from the past: http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/who-invented-the-knock-knock-joke/ :)

      YOU ROCK! :)

  7. ———————————————————–
    Not For An Hour Not For 36 Second Not For A Minute But For A Second I Thought That That Turtle Was Flying OVER The Water!!! :D

    I Wonder What’s Next???
    Tomorrow’s Wonder Of The Day Might Have You Saying, “Who’s There???”

    Uhm Knock Knock Jokes, Uh Monsters In The Night Knocking At Your Door??? :D
    Here Or Some Jokes That Will Hopfully Crack You Up!!!
    Knock Knock?
    ME WHO?
    No, seriously, it’s Just Me. I Am Just Coming In To Tell You A Knock knock joke!!!!


    • Hey Max! Thanks for visiting us today– turtles are SUPER cool! We love WONDERing about reptiles of all kinds, and we’re glad you’re here today! :)

      We know how much you love knock-knock jokes… you told us so in our joke Wonder! Thanks for sharing your comment! :)

    • Thank you so much, Tyler! :) We’re glad you visited us today to Wonder about turtles and tortoises, and terapins, too! Who knew there was a difference?! Thanks for sharing your prediction, too! Great guess! :)

  8. I knew there was something different between the three, but I never knew what the difference was. Wonderopolis told me! I can’t wait to read tomorrow’s wonder. I think it is about the mystery or horror genre.

    • Hey there, miiD! Thanks for WONDERing with us today! You did a great job of sharing what you learned from this Wonder! We think turtles are pretty cool, and so are you! Have a great day, Wonder Friend! :)

  9. What a great Wonder! We learned a great deal about turtles today.Where we live, we call them turtles! Are terrapins smaller than turtles? Do terrapins have teeth? Thanks!

    • Thanks so much for visiting us today, Mrs. Higgins’ Class! We like that you learned all about different types of reptiles today! Terrapins don’t have teeth, but they’ve got strong jaws! :)

  10. There is something different between each type of turtle and there is also a difference between them because they all don’t live the same. from Ariana

    • Hey there, Ariana! We are glad you shared your comment with us! Great work comparing and contrasting the different types of turtles you learned about today! Have a super time on your vacation! :)

  11. I am so glad that this was today’s Wonder! I am doing a Summer Reading Program and one of our weeks is about turtles, so I can definitely use a lot of the information from today’s Wonder! Thanks, guys!

    • Hey there, Stephanie! We’re thrilled to hear that this Wonder is going to help you through the Summer Reading Program! WOOHOO for WONDERing about turtles! Thanks so much for telling us about your connection to this Wonder- we’re glad to help! :)

    • Hey there, Kyle! That’s WONDERful news, we are glad you liked our turtle Wonder today! We Wonder if you have a pet turtle, or perhaps you’ve seen them in the aquarium before? :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What’s the difference between turtles, tortoises, and terrapins?
  • Where does the word “terrapin” come from?
  • If you had a shell, what would you want to be called?

Wonder Gallery

turtle swimming underwaterVimeo Video

Try It Out

Turtles? Tortoises? Terrapins? Oh my! Keep the learning going by checking out one or more of the following activities with a friend of family member:

  • Aren’t turtles just the cutest? Or do you prefer tortoises? Maybe you think terrapins are the best. Whichever creature — or name — you prefer, turtles have been a favorite animal of children for ages. Jump online with a friend or family member to check out this fantastic Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins Photo Gallery. Which creatures do you think are the coolest? Why?
  • If you had a backbone and a shell, what would you prefer to be called? Turtle? Tortoise? Terrapin? Something else entirely? What if you were also a mutant ninja in your teenage years? Put your brain into overdrive and fire up the ol’ imagination. Also get out your colored pencils, crayons or markers, and get ready to create a name tag that shows off — in a colorful way — what name you’d choose if you had a shell. Use one or more of these coloring sheets to help get you started:

When you’re finished, share your creation with the rest of your Wonder Friends on Facebook! We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

  • Up for a challenge? Create a Venn diagram that compares how turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are similar and different. Check out How To Make a Venn Diagram if you need a little help getting started. Make sure that the areas where your circles (Hint: You should have three circles!) overlap should have those characteristics that turtles, tortoises, and terrapins share. Those things that are unique to each individual creature should be in the area outside where the circles overlap. Have fun and be sure to share your completed Venn diagram with a friend or family member. Do they understand what you’re trying to communicate? If not, you might need to revise your Venn diagram to make it clearer!

Still Wondering

Illuminations’ Get the Turtle to the Pond lesson provides opportunities for creative problem solving while encouraging young students to estimate length and angle measure.

Test Your Knowledge

Wonder What’s Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day might have you saying, “Who’s there?”

Upload a Photo or Paste the URL of a YouTube or SchoolTube Video.