AskDefine | Define tortoise

Dictionary Definition

tortoise n : usually herbivorous land turtles having clawed elephant-like limbs; worldwide in arid area except Australia and Antarctica

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  1. Any of various land-dwelling reptiles, of family Testudinidae, whose body is enclosed in a shell (carapace plus plastron). The animal can withdraw its head and four legs partially into the shell, providing some protection from predators.


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Extensive Definition

Tortoises or land turtles are land-dwelling reptiles of the family of Testudinidae, order Testudines. Like their marine cousins, the sea turtles, tortoises are shielded from predators by a shell. The top part of the shell is the carapace, the underside is the plastron, and the two are connected by the bridge. The tortoise has both an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton. Tortoises can vary in size from a few centimeters to two meters. Tortoises tend to be diurnal animals with tendencies to be crepuscular depending on the ambient temperatures. They are generally reclusive animals. The biggest operational difference between tortoises and turtles is that tortoises are unable to swim; indeed, they cannot float, whereas turtles can.




Female tortoises dig nesting burrows in which they lay from one to thirty eggs. Egg laying typically occurs at night, after which the mother tortoise covers her clutch with sand, soil, and organic material. The eggs are left unattended, and depending on the species, take from 60 to 120 days to incubate. The size of the egg depends on the size of the mother and can be estimated by examining the width of the cloacal opening between the carapice and plastron. The plastron of a female tortoise often has a noticeable V-shaped notch below the tail to facilitate passing the eggs. Upon completion of the incubation period, a fully-formed hatchling uses an egg-tooth to break out of its shell. It digs to the surface of the nest and begins a life of survival on its own. Hatchlings are born with an embryonic egg sac which serves as a source of nutrition for the first 3 to 7 days until they have the strength and mobility to find food. Juvenile tortoises often require a different balance of nutrients than adults, and therefore may eat foods which a more mature tortoise would not. For example, it is common that the young of a strictly herbivorous species will consume worms or insect larvae for additional protein.


There are many old wives tales about the age of turtles and tortoises, one of which being that the age of a tortoise can be deducted by counting the number of concentric rings on its carapace, much like the cross-section of a tree. This is, of course, not true, since the growth of a tortoise depends highly on the access of food and water. A tortoise that has access to plenty of forage (or is regularly fed by its owner) will grow faster than a desert tortoise that goes days without eating.
Tortoises generally have lifespans comparable with those of human beings, and some individuals are known to have lived longer than 150 years. Because of this, they symbolize longevity in some cultures, such as China. The oldest tortoise ever recorded, almost the oldest individual animal ever recorded, was Tui Malila, who was presented to the Tongan royal family by the British explorer Captain Cook shortly after its birth in 1777. Tui Malila remained in the care of the Tongan royal family until its death by natural causes on May 19, 1965. This means that upon its death, Tui Malila was 188 years old. The record for the longest-lived vertebrate is succeeded only by one other, a koi fish named Hanako whose death on July 17 1977 ended a 226 year life span.
The Alipore Zoo in India was the home to Adwaitya, which zoo officials claimed was the oldest living animal until its death on March 23, 2006. Adwaitya (sometimes spelled with two d's) was an Aldabra Giant Tortoise brought to India by Lord Wellesley who handed it over to the Alipur Zoological Gardens in 1875 when the zoo was set up. Zoo officials state they have documentation showing that Adwaitya was at least 130 years old, but claim that he was over 250 years old (although this has not been scientifically verified). Adwaitya was said to be the pet of Robert Clive. Harriet, a resident at the Australia Zoo in Queensland, was apocryphally thought to have been brought to England by Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle. Harriet died on June 23, 2006, just shy of her 176th birthday.

Sexual dimorphism

Many, though not all, species of tortoises are sexually dimorphic, though the differences between males and females vary from species to species. In some species, males have a longer, more protruding neck plate than their female counterparts, while in others the claws are longer on the females. In most tortoise species the female tends to be larger than the male. (Some believe that males grow quicker, while the female grows slower but larger.) The male also has a plastron that is curved inwards to aid reproduction. The easiest way to determine the sex of a tortoise is to look at the tail. The females, as a general rule have a smaller tail which is dropped down whereas the males have a much longer tail which is usually pulled up and to the side of the rear shell.


Most land based tortoises are herbivores, feeding on grazing grasses, weeds, leafy greens, flowers, and certain fruits. Their main diet consists of alfalfa, clover, dandelions, and leafy weeds, although they will also eat various insects. Feeding tortoises cat or dog food is a common mistake, as both cat and dog food contain too much protein and lack other important nutrients for tortoises. Tortoises are not carnivores, and should not be fed large amounts of protein, as it may cause shell deformation and other medical problems.
Many people make the mistake of assuming that all captive tortoises can be fed on the same diet. In reality, tortoise species vary greatly in their nutritional requirements. There is no "one fits all" diet. What works for one species won't always work for another. Commercial pellets are definitely to be avoided for all species, as they contain too much protein.


The following species list largely follows Ernst & Barbour (1989), as indicated by The Reptile Database. However, the newly erected genera Astrochelys, Chelonoidis and Stigmochelys have been retained within Geochelone.

Tortoises in religion

In Hinduism, Kurma (Sanskrit: कुर्म) was the second avatar of Vishnu. Like the Matsya Avatara also belongs to the Satya yuga. Vishnu took the form of a half-man half-tortoise, the lower half being a tortoise. He is normally shown as having four arms. He sat on the bottom of the ocean after the Great Flood. A mountain was placed on his back by the other gods so that they could churn the sea and find the ancient treasures of the Vedic peoples.

Tortoises as pets

Many tortoises have specific temperature, roaming space, light, air moisture, and diet requirements. They are difficult to breed in captivity, so many are caught in the wild. Tortoises need outdoor space to roam. It is not possible to house-train a tortoise.

Tortoises in popular culture

See main article Cultural depictions of turtles and tortoises


Further reading

  • Chambers, Paul. 2004. A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise. John Murray (Publishers), London. ISBN 0-7195-6528-6.
  • Ernst,C.H. & Barbour,R.W. 1989. Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. - London.
  • Gerlach, Justin. 2004. Giant Tortoises of the Indian Ocean. Chimiara publishers, Frankfurt.
  • Kuyl, Antoinette C. van der et al.2002. Phylogenetic Relationships among the Species of the Genus Testudo (Testudines: Testudinidae) Inferred from Mitochondrial 12S rRNA Gene Sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 22: 174-183.


tortoise in Arabic: سلحفاة
tortoise in Tibetan: རུས་སྤལ་
tortoise in Bulgarian: Костенурки
tortoise in Czech: Želva zelenavá
tortoise in Corsican: Cuppulata
tortoise in Welsh: Crwban
tortoise in German: Landschildkröten
tortoise in Spanish: Tortuga
tortoise in Esperanto: Testudo
tortoise in Persian: لاک‌پشت
tortoise in French: Testudinidae
tortoise in Scottish Gaelic: Crùban-coille
tortoise in Galician: Tartaruga
tortoise in Korean: 거북
tortoise in Indonesian: Kura-kura dan penyu
tortoise in Iloko: Pag-ong
tortoise in Ossetian: Уæртджын хæфс
tortoise in Italian: Testudinidae
tortoise in Hebrew: צבים יבשתיים
tortoise in Latin: Testudinidae
tortoise in Luxembourgish: Landdeckelsmouken
tortoise in Lithuanian: Balkanų vėžlys
tortoise in Limburgan: Sjèldkróddele
tortoise in Hungarian: Szárazfölditeknős-félék
tortoise in Malagasy: Fano
tortoise in Malay (macrolanguage): Penyu
tortoise in Dutch: Landschildpadden
tortoise in Japanese: リクガメ
tortoise in Uighur: تاشپاقا
tortoise in Polish: Żółwie lądowe
tortoise in Portuguese: Tartaruga
tortoise in Russian: Черепахи
tortoise in Simple English: Tortoise
tortoise in Serbian: Корњача
tortoise in Sundanese: Kuya
tortoise in Finnish: Kilpikonnat
tortoise in Swedish: Landsköldpaddor
tortoise in Thai: เต่า
tortoise in Turkish: Kaplumbağa
tortoise in Chinese: 龜

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