Types of Turtles and Species

14 Different Types of Turtles and Turtle Species

The different types of turtles are unique animals renowned for their shells and are cousins to tortoises. These reptiles developed thousands of years before we even showed up! Besides being found on rocky surfaces, we can also find turtles inhabiting the water. 

Scientific discoveries show that the turtle population includes more than 300 varieties. Like most reptile species, you will find various types of turtles on all continents apart from Antarctica. In this article, we will examine the distinctive characteristics of different types of turtles.

Related: for more from our slow-shelled friends, you might also like our compilation of turtle facts and turtle quotes.

Types of Turtle Species 

1. Sea turtles

There are seven species of sea turtles, also referred to as marine turtles. They include leatherback, hawksbill, green, flatback, loggerhead, Kemp's Ridley, and olive ridley. Within the broader sea turtle classification, there are two groups of sea turtles, hard-shelled (cheloniid) and leathery-shelled (dermochelyidae). However, there is only one specie of leathery-shelled turtle - the leatherback turtle. 

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 listed six out of the seven sea turtle species. Only the flat-back turtle is not at risk of extinction. Sexual dimorphism is a common occurrence among different types of turtles, except sea turtles. Female and male sea turtles are of the same size. Sea turtles have a body shape that allows them to swim more efficiently.

Here's a little more explanation of some types of sea turtles. 

Leatherback sea turtle 

Leatherback sea turtle
Photo Credit: Cataloging Nature (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea
Conservation status: Critically endangered

The leatherback sea turtle is the largest and heaviest living turtle. It can grow to 5ft 11in and weighs up to 500kg. It is the only living species of the dermocheltdae family, characterized by a different shell structure from other turtle shells. Other turtle shells have a bony structure, but the leatherback turtle’s shell is oily and flexible, like leather, hence the name leatherback turtle. 

You will find leatherback turtles in the Atlantic, eastern Pacific, and western Pacific oceans. In addition, they inhabit all tropical and subtropical oceans. Adult leatherback turtles feed on jellyfish, fish, sea urchins, snails, cnidaria, and tunicates. Also, the leatherback turtle has a relatively long lifespan and can live up to 50 years or more. Sadly leatherback turtles are endangered due to overharvesting and human encroachment on their natural habitats3.

Green sea turtle 

Green Sea Turtle
Photo by Jesse Schoff on Unsplash

Scientific name: Chelonia mydas
Conservation status: Endangered

Green sea turtles have many other names like black sea turtle, pacific green turtle, and simply green turtle. They have the name green turtle because of the green fat underneath their carapace1 (shells). They inhabit the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. 

Adult green turtles grow up to 5ft long and weigh an average of 190kg. However, some green turtles can weigh up to 395kg. Green sea turtles’ physical attributes include their short snout and unhooked beak. Also, their carapaces have different colors that change from time to time. 

Hawksbill sea turtle

Hawksbill sea turtle
Photo Credit: Rickard Zerpe (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Eretmochelys imbricata
Conservation status: Critically endangered 

Hawksbill sea turtles have shells that change color based on the water temperature. We can identify this turtle specie by its curved and pointed beak. A mature hawksbill turtle can grow up to 3ft long with a weight of 80kg. Hawksbill turtles prefer to live in the tropical reefs of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans reefs. Fishers hunt them for their shells, eggs, and meat. Sadly, they are at risk of extinction because of human fishing activities.  

2. Snapping turtles

Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator Snapping Turtle
Photo Credit: Ashley Wahlberg (Tubbs) (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Scientific name: Macrochelys temminckii
Conservation status: Vulnerable

Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtle species in the world. They have large and heavy heads, while their thick shells resemble the scales of an ancient plated dinosaur called Ankylosaurus. You can differentiate them from the common snapping turtle by the three ridges of spikes on their carapaces. Their habitat is in the fresh waters of the United States. 

Their colors are brown, grey, black, and olive green. Unlike other turtles, the male alligator turtle is bigger than its female counterpart. Adult turtles can weigh as much as 80kg and grow up to 31.8 inches long. Also, they have a long life span, ranging from 20 to 70 years. They are scavengers and active hunters, so their diet consists of dead and live fish.

3. Softshell turtles

The softshell turtle grouping includes some of the largest freshwater turtles. We call them softshells because of the softness of their carapaces. 

Their soft shells give them more room to swim effortlessly and faster than the other types of turtles. Like most turtles, there is a high level of sexual dimorphism among soft-shelled turtles. Most of these species are carnivores, only feeding on fish, aquatic crustaceans, amphibians, and snails. There are various types of soft-shelled turtles. We will be discussing two common types of softshell turtles. 

Spiny softshell turtle

Spiny softshell turtle
Photo Credit: Melissa McMasters (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Apalone spinifera
Conservation status: Least concern

A spiny softshell is a sizeable aquatic turtle, one of the largest out of most freshwater turtles. They get their name from the structure of their shells which have cone-like projections at the edge of their carapaces. Also, you can recognize a spiny softshell by its soft, fleshy, and elongated nose. Furthermore, they have webbed feet with three claws on each. 

Their diet consists of crayfish, aquatic insects, fish, and aquatic plants. A unique feature of spiny softshells is their ability to breathe oxygen and carbon dioxide while breathing air or underwater2. This breathing ability makes them bimodal breathers.

Smooth softshell turtle 

Smooth softshell turtle
Photo Credit: Peter Paplanus (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Apalone mutica
Conservation status: Least concern

This species of softshell have anapsid skulls. Anapsid skulls are skulls that have no openings. They also have a pipe-like snout with round nostrils. Their shells are smooth, soft, and flexible. Female smooth softshells are larger than their male counterparts. A female’s shell length can grow up to 14 inches, while males grow up to 7 inches.

They mainly eat crayfish, fish, amphibians, and aquatic insects. However, they sometimes eat aquatic plants and vegetation. They are endemic to North America, with a preference for underwater areas with sand or mud bottoms. They avoid rocky areas and places with heavy vegetation.

4. Box turtles

Box turtles are similar to giant tortoises when comparing their physical appearances and habits on land. Box turtles are endemic to North America, while the other box turtles, referred to as Asian box turtles, are endemic to Asian waters. They are semi-aquatic types of turtles.   

Box turtles have a rounded carapace and a flat lower shell. They can retreat deep into their shells, closing themselves like a box. An average box turtle can live up to 50 years, while others can live up to 100 years. You will find various species of box turtles in the United States and Mexico. Below are some species of North American box turtles.

Three-toed box turtle

Three-toed box turtle
Photo Credit: Peter Paplanus (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Terrapene triunguis
Conservation status:  Secure

Three-toed box turtles are endemic to the south-central regions of the United States. They prefer to live in humid areas like swampy and hardwood forests7. However, they are popular in the pet trade. They can live up to 50 years as pet turtles when cared for adequately. Furthermore, the three-toed box turtle is the official reptile of the state of Missouri. 

The three-toed box turtle got its name from the number of toes on its back feet. It primarily has three toes on its back feet, but, confusingly, it could also have four. Its shell is dome-shaped and can grow up to 7 inches long. It feeds on earthworms, strawberries, slugs, mushrooms, plants, and insects. Certain regions have banned keeping three-toed box turtles as pet turtles to avoid poachers capturing them in the wild to sell as pets. 

Eastern box turtle

Eastern box turtle
Photo Credit: Doug Letterman (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Terrapene carolina carolina
Conservation status: Vulnerable 

The eastern box turtle is endemic to the Eastern part of the United States. Eastern box turtles are slow and terrestrial. The turtle’s shells are high and dome-shaped, with colors ranging from brown to black. There are yellow and orange lines or spots on their carapace. Furthermore, a male eastern box turtle has red irises, while females have brown irises. 

These turtles can grow up to 8 inches long with horned beaks. They are omnivores, feeding on a variety of animals and plants. Their diet contains earthworms, slugs, snails, mushrooms, beetles, flowers, and grubs. They avoid stressful environmental conditions as they prefer moderately wet forest areas with good drainage.

5. Asian box turtle

There are 12 other species of Asian box turtles that are terrestrial, semi-aquatic, and aquatic. The Asian box turtle has a variety of colors, ranging from red, brown, grey, and black. Some might also have white, yellow, orange, or white stripes on the keels of their carapace. 

These aquatic turtles experience the most trafficking among other turtles. Humans hunt them and sell them to China as food. Also, traffickers sell them to the United States as pet trade deals. Here are two species of the Asian box turtle. 

Golden coin turtle 

Golden coin turtle
Pictured a recently hatched baby. Photo Credit: Turtle Conservancy (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scientific name: Cuora trifasciata
Conservation status: Endangered (CR)

The golden coin turtle, also known as the Chinese three-striped box turtle, has three black stripes on their brown shells. There are also yellow markings on their carapace with a black plastron. This species is endemic to southern China. The turtles feed on fish, carrion, frogs, and insects and can grow up to 10 inches long. 

They prefer to spend most of their time on land, so they are most active during the evening and afternoon transition periods. They are excellent rock climbers and fast burrowers.  

Chinese box turtle

Chinese box turtle
Photo Credit: LiCheng Shih  (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Cuora flavomarginata
Conservation status: Endangered 

The Chinese box turtle is also known as the golden-headed turtle. It has a high dome-shaped shell, higher than other turtles with dome-shaped shells. It has a dark brown carapace with creamy yellow markings. Also, each gender has an extension of a yellow line from behind the eyes. The male turtle has a broader tail than its female counterpart. 

This turtle is endemic to Central China5. You will find it in the wild in Hunan, Chongqing, Henan, Anhui, eastern Sichuan, and along the Yangtze drainage. It's also present in Taiwan and Japan.

6. Painted turtles

Painted turtles are the most common native turtle in North America. They grow up to 10 inches long, and male turtles are usually smaller than females. The turtle’s skin is often olive or black colored, with red, orange, and yellow lines. Also, its carapace is ridgeless and dark. 

They feed on aquatic vegetation, fish, algae, insects, and crustaceans. Their primary feeding spot is inside water. Furthermore, they hibernate during winter at the muddy bottom of rivers and lakes. Their lifespan lasts up to 55 years. A painted turtle is similar to red-eared sliders but flatter than red ones. 

Western Painted turtles

Western Painted turtles
Photo Credit: USFWS Midwest Region (public domain)

Scientific name: Chrysemys picta bellii
Conservation status: Endangered 

The western painted turtle is one of the largest subspecies of painted turtles. Western-painted turtles have the lightest shell color out of the species’ shell colors. Their shells have light patterns that look like a mesh design, while the under shell has large splotches of color that spread to the edges of their shells. They can grow up to 10 inches long.

Furthermore, they have a long life span, living up to 50 years once they survive infancy. They live in shallow parts of ponds, lakes, marshes, and underwater areas that have muddy buttons and vegetation.  

Southern painted turtle

Southern painted turtle
Photo: iStock

Scientific name: Chrysemys dorsalis
Conservation status: Not accessed

The southern painted turtle is native to water bodies in the south-central areas of the United States. It prefers living in shallow waters with muddy bottoms and dense vegetation. So, they can live in lakes, rivers, ponds, wetlands, oxbows, and reservoirs. They are the smallest members of the Chrysemys family and only grow to the maximum length of 6 inches.

They are adaptable as pet turtles. They feed on frogs, fish, algae, snails, duckweed, and crayfish. They prefer living in water areas with muddy or sandy bottoms because it gives them a place to lay their cream-colored eggs. Mating season occurs in late winter and spring seasons, and female turtles can lay up to 20 eggs per clutch. 

7. Musk turtles

Musk turtles (stinkpot)
Photo Credit: Ontley (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scientific name: Sternotherus odoratus
Conservation status: Threatened species 

A musk turtle, also known as the common musk turtle or eastern musk turtle, is in the same family as mud turtles. People also call it stinkpot because of the foul smell it releases from the edge of its shell to chase off predators. Common musk turtles have three dome-shaped shell colors. They are black, grey, and brown. Furthermore, they are little turtles with a maximum length of 5.5 inches. 

Their small sizes make them common pet turtles because they breed well in captivity for the pet trade. You will find the eastern musk turtle in southern Quebec, southern Ontario, and the eastern United States. Also, they live in various wetlands, nearshore, and shallow water bodies. They are more aquatic and efficient at climbing than most turtles. The aquatic species nest in terrestrial areas. 

They feed on gastropods, bivalves, insects, crayfish, small fish, fish eggs, amphibians, crustaceans, green algae, and some parts of vascular plants. Female musk turtles can lay a maximum of 9 eggs per clutch6.

8. Mud turtles

Mud turtles are smaller than musk turtles. They prefer to live in lakes, rivers, and swamps with dense vegetation. Also, they survive better in clean and oxygenated water. However, they can tolerate brackish water. Unlike other turtles, they do not bask. It is a rare occurrence to see a mud turtle basking. There are about 21 species of mud turtles, but we will examine one of them.  

Eastern mud turtle

Eastern mud turtle
Photo Credit: Peter Paplanus (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Kinosternon subrubrum
Conservation status: Least concern 

The eastern mud turtle, also known as the common mud turtle, is native to the United States. However, it can be tricky to identify these aquatic species because they do not have any markings or patterns on their shells. In addition, they only grow up to 4 inches in length. Eastern mud turtles have a yellowish-grey chin and throat, their limbs and tail are grey, and their eyes are yellow with a dark clouding. 

They also have webbed feet. They are omnivorous, so they feed on insects, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, and aquatic vegetation. Also, they prefer to live in freshwater regions in the Southeastern and Northeastern United States.  

9. Map turtles

The map turtle is a freshwater turtle with 14 species. IUCN listed half of the species as threatened, vulnerable, or endangered, including the yellow-blotched map turtle and the ringed map turtle as threatened. This is because they prefer to live in moving water bodies like rivers, creeks, and streams where human encroachment threatens their reproduction. 

They are similar to other aquatic turtles and exhibit high levels of sexual dimorphism. Adult females are ten times the size of their male counterparts. 

Northern Map Turtles

Northern Map Turtle
Photo Credit: Peter Paplanus (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Graptemys geographica
Conservation status: Special concern

The northern map turtle, also known as a common map turtle, is aquatic. It got its name from the patterned markings on its shell. The markings look like contour lines on a topographical map. Commonly, map turtles have varying sizes. A male northern map turtle weighs between 150g to 400g, while females weigh between 0.67kg to 2.5kg. Furthermore, a female northern map turtle’s carapace length grows up to 27cm while males stop growing at 16cm. 

They like to stay in large bodies of water like ponds, rivers, and lakes. Northern map turtles are endemic to St. Lawrence River drainage basin areas around south Quebec and Ontario to northern Vermont, extending into the Great Lakes. You will also find it in the Susquehanna River system in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Delaware River. 

Their strong jaws facilitate their flesh-eating nature. They feed on mollusks, insects, and crayfish. Female northern map turtles can easily crack open mollusks and snails because they have stronger jaws and wider heads. Sadly, IUCN listed northern map turtles as endangered in Kansas, Kentucky, and Maryland.

Ouachita Map Turtle

Ouachita Map Turtle
Photo Credit: Peter Paplanus (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Graptemys ouachitensis
Conservation status: Least Concern 

The Ouachita map turtle is a medium-sized turtle with a rectangular or oval yellow patch behind its eyes. Male turtles grow to 6.5 inches, while female turtles grow to 10.5 inches in length. Their upper shell, also referred to as a carapace, is jagged. It is a mix of olive-green and brown, with yellow lines covering the top of the turtle shell, making it look like waterways on a map. Their head, neck, and limbs are dark green with thin yellow lines. Ouachita turtles have a black horizontal slit in their bright yellow eyes.

They eat fish, shrimp, insects, and mollusks. They also feed on algae and aquatic plants. However, people use them as pet turtles. Therefore, you will find them in large rivers and lakes when they are not living as human pets. Ouachita map turtles are endemic to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia, and Illinois.

False map turtle

False map turtle
Photo Credit: Peter Paplanus (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific name: Graptemys pseudogeographica
Conservation status: Least Concern

False map turtles are aquatic turtles. They are called sawback turtles because of their serrated shell. The colors of their carapace are olive to brown, with yellow marks. However, their bodies can have different shades of color ranging from greyish brown to black, while their eye colors could be brown, yellow, white, or green. 

Male turtles are smaller than females. They grow up to 5.75 inches, while females grow up to 10.75 inches in length. Their diet consists of insects, worms, crayfish, snails, dead fish, and aquatic plants. False map turtles prefer to live in large streams. So, you can find them in various Missouri and Mississippi River systems. They are also in rivers in Southwest Louisiana and East Texas. 

False map turtles like to spend time in the sun as basking is very important to map turtle species. They are a social group, sharing spaces and protecting each other from predators. Spring is their mating season. They mate in water; reproduction takes about 80 days after the female turtle lays eggs during summer. The female reproductive organ can lay up to 22 turtle eggs per clutch. 

10. Wood turtle

Wood turtle
Photo: iStock

Scientific name: Glyptemys insculpta
Conservation status: Endangered 

Wood turtles are 8 inches long. Their shells have a unique design. Each part of their scutes looks like a pyramid. Their shells are brown, while their necks and limbs are color red. They prefer to spend time near water, in the shallow parts. However, you can find them in forests and grasslands. 

Like most turtles, they are omnivores. They are endemic to New England, Nova Scotia, northern Indiana, and Minnesota. Wood turtles are active in the daytime in the spring season4, but they hibernate during the winter season. Also, they can move faster than other turtles at up to 0.32 kilometers per hour. 

11. Chicken turtles 

Chicken turtle
Photo: iStock

Scientific name: Deirochelys reticularia
Conservation status: Secure

The chicken turtle prefers to live in slow-moving, shallow, or still-water bodies. It is carnivorous, so they eat crayfish, dragonflies, tadpoles, spiders, and carrion. Also, they are semi-aquatic, spending more than half the year on land. They enjoy basking as it helps them regulate their body temperature. 

The Chicken turtle species have sexual dimorphism. Female turtles are usually bigger than males, growing up to 10 inches. You can find them in the southeastern parts of the United States. There are three chicken turtle species: western, eastern, and Florida chicken turtles. They don’t have a long lifespan, living up to 25 years. 

Other types of turtles

Other types of turtles are African side-neck, river, and pond turtles. African side neck turtles are endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, Sao Tome, and Seychelles. The African side-necked turtle has a long life span. They can live up to 50 years or more. They can grow up to 18 inches long. An African side-neck’s physical appearance includes webbed feet with sharp claws and olive-brown heads with black spots. 

The river turtle belongs to Emydidae, Dermatemydidae, Geoemydidae, and Podocnemididae. It prefers to stay in freshwater habitats. There are over 50 species of river turtles, including the map, box, marsh, and pond turtles. 

There are also various species of pond turtles, including: 

  • Chinese pond turtle
  • Japanese pond turtle
  • Western Pond turtle
  • Red-headed sliders 

Conclusion  

There are over 300 species of turtles in the world, each with its unique features. There’s no doubt that turtles are fascinating creatures. Unfortunately, many of them face the risk of extinction for several reasons. These reasons include climate change, human fishing, hunting activities, trafficking, and attacks from other predators. 

If you want to own a pet turtle, be sure it's not illegal to own the type of turtle you’re interested in. Many governments have banned the pet trading of specific turtles because of their high trafficking rates. These highly trafficked turtles face the most risk of extinction.

Pin Me:
Pin Image Portrait 14 Different Types of Turtles and Turtle Species
1

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2

Reese, S.A., Jackson, D.C. & Ultsch, G.R. Hibernation in freshwater turtles: softshell turtles (Apalone spinifera) are the most intolerant of anoxia among North American speciesJ Comp Physiol B 173, 263–268 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00360-003-0332-1

3

Dutton, D. L., Dutton, P. H., Chaloupka, M., & Boulon, R. H. (2005). Increase of a Caribbean leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea nesting population linked to long-term nest protectionBiological Conservation126(2), 186-194.

4

Greaves, W. F., & Litzgus, J. D. (2007). Overwintering ecology of wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) at the species' northern range limitJournal of herpetology41(1), 32-40.

5

Fong, J. J., Parham, J. F., & Fu, J. (2002). A reassessment of the distribution of Cuora flavomarginata Gray 1863 on mainland ChinaRussian Journal of Herpetology9(1), 9-14.

6

McPherson, R. J., & Marion, K. R. (1981). The reproductive biology of female Sternotherus odoratus in an Alabama populationJournal of Herpetology, 389-396.

7

Reagan, D. P. (1974). Habitat selection in the three-toed box turtle, Terrapene carolina triunguisCopeia, 512-527.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Autumn Bradley on Unsplash
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