How to Identify Tortoises

By Joel Garrison; Updated April 25, 2017
Some species of turtles bite.

Perhaps you were driving down the road and stopped to help a small tortoise get safely across the street, only to decide at the last minute to keep it. Or maybe you are just trying to decide whether it is safe to pick it up to begin with. There are a number of scenarios where identifying a tortoise could prove beneficial. Learn how to get a good idea of what kind of tortoise you have by comparing some basic characteristics.

Check whether it has webbed feet. Most people use the terms "tortoise" and "turtle" interchangeably. Tortoises are generally land animals, only going into ponds or creeks to drink.

Look at the feet. Tortoises have clawed front and rear feet to help them move better on land and to make burrows. Freshwater turtles, such as snapping turtles and soft shell turtles, have webbed rear feet and clawed front feet.

Inspect the beak. If it has a squared, blunt beak, it is a tortoise species. If it has a sharp pointy beak, it is a snapping turtle. If it has a long, pig-like snout, it is a soft shell turtle. A hooked beak similar to a bird of prey will likely belong to a box turtle.

Look at the tail. If the tail is long and has spikes, it is probably a snapping turtle. If the tail is short and stubby, it is more likely a land species.

Check out the shell. If it appears soft and flat, it is a soft shell turtle, which will bite. If it has a line of ridges running the length of the shell that look like spikes, it is probably a snapping turtle, which will also bite. If the shell looks more like a helmet-shaped dome, it is likely a benign box or painted turtle. A black shell with yellow markings means a spotted turtle. A brown or gray shell with growth rings on each section of shell is a wood turtle.

Check the markings. Turtles with red markings on the top or bottom of the shell as well as on the neck and legs are called painted turtles. Turtles with yellow lines or stripes and no red markings are likely common map turtles. Turtles with red and orange markings near the eyes and yellowish stripes on the head and legs are red-eared sliders.


Compare the tortoise with pictures of known species to be certain of the kind you have.


Snapping turtles and soft shell turtles bite. Snapping turtles in particular have very powerful and painful bites, and a large snapping turtle can remove a finger if you are not careful.

About the Author

Joel Garrison is a professional writer with a Bachelor of Science in political science from Florida State University. He has served as an editor for the Florida House of Representatives and worked in crash reconstruction. Garrison teaches report writing, communications, physical fitness and health and nutrition to police recruits. He is also a firearms, defensive tactics, first-responder and CPR instructor.