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Can Tortoises Swim?

Do Tortoises Swim?

We know turtles can swim. They are famous for it. What about tortoises, do tortoises swim? While aquatic turtles can swim, sadly land tortoises cannot swim even though some do like to cool off in shallow water. Why can’t tortoise swim but turtles can? Aren’t aquatic turtles and tortoises both chelonians?

Well, while tortoise species, freshwater turtle species, and sea turtles all come from the order Testudines, the differences in their physiologies ensure that aquatic turtles can swim efficiently while a tortoise will drown in a large body of water. Before you build a pool or an aquarium for your pet turtle, just ensure that it can swim.

Why Can Sea Turtles And Freshwater Turtles (Terrapins) Swim But Tortoises Can’t?

To be clear tortoises are turtles as they belong to the order Testudines. Turtles consist of land tortoises, sea turtles, and freshwater turtles (which include terrapins). However, for all intended purposes, we will refer to only aquatic turtles as turtles and land tortoises as tortoises.

There are several reasons why turtles can swim while tortoises can’t. The differences in how their feet are shaped, the nature of their shell, and their respective habitats all help us to understand why turtles can swim, but tortoises can’t.

Turtle Flippers Vs Turtle Feet – The Physiology

One of the first differences you may have noticed is the feet. This is especially true when you compare a sea turtle’s flipper to that of a tortoise’s. The physiology of a turtle’s feet goes a long way in determining if the turtle can swim or not.

Sea Turtle’s Flippers

sea turtle flippers
Green Sea Turtle Flipper

Let’s look at the feet of sea turtles. Sea turtles have flippers instead of feet. These flippers may them clumsy on land. You can see they struggle to move on land or even traverse large stretches on land. However, these floppers make them extremely capable swimmers.

With theses floppers, they can swim effortlessly. These flippers are perfect as sea turtles spend almost all their entire lives in water. The only time they spend on land includes when they hatch and rush to the sea; and when gravid females come to shore to lay eggs.

Freshwater Turtle’s Webbed Feet

water turtle feet
Red eared slider with feet sprawled out

Similar to sea turtles, the freshwater turtle’s feet are designed for swimming. Unlike sea turtles, freshwater turtles do not have flippers instead they have webbed feet. These are good for swimming as the webbed nature of the feet is effective for propelling through the water.

However, unlike flippers, webbed feet make it easier for turtles to walk on land. Webbed feet are a great compromise between the land tortoise’s elephantine feet and sea turtle’s flippers. 

While freshwater turtles spend a large portion of their lives in water, even sleeping underwater, water turtles also spend a lot of time basking on land or on logs.

Tortoise’s Elephantine Feet

tortoise feet
Close up of sulcata tortoise feet

Tortoise feet are large, sturdy, and solid. They resemble elephant feet. These short thick legs with short nails are great for traversing large stretches of land and moving over uneven terrain.

However, they are not good for swimming. Unlike webbed feet or flippers, they cannot be used to propel through the water. The physiology of the tortoise’s feet is one of the main reasons why tortoises cannot swim.

The Physiology Of A Turtle’s Shell

The physiology of a turtle’s shell goes a long way in determining if turtles swim or not. Unlike aquatic turtle whose shells are streamlined and feature flat carapaces, tortoises like the leopard tortoise, gohper tortoise, and galapagos tortoise have high domed and bulky shells.

Aquatic Turtles’ Shell

Painted Wood Turtle (Ornate Wood Turtle)
Ornate Wood Turtle (Painted Wood Turtle)

Aquatic turtles have streamlined aerodynamic shells that allow water to effortlessly flow around the shells as they swim. These aerodynamic shells cut through the water and efficiently minimize drag.

To prevent their shell from becoming domed shaped, aquatic turtles shed their old scutes as new and wider ones grow underneath. Looking at the shell of an aquatic turtle, you can understand how they are such amazing swimmers.

Land Tortoises’ Shell

Indian Star Tortoise

The tortoise’s shell is very different from that of an aquatic turtle as a shell can be. Unlike aquatic turtles’ shells, tortoises have high-domed shells. As the turtle grows, new scutes from underneath older scutes.

Unlike aquatic turtles, land tortoises don’t shed their scutes instead their shells just grow higher. This causes the pyramids found on the tortoise’s shell. With bulky shells like theses, tortoises have a hard time swimming through water.

The Nature Of A Turtle’s Habitat

The habitat of a turtle tells us a lot about the behavior of the turtle. For instead, a turtle that lives in an arid region probably doesn’t know how to swim.

Similarly, if a turtle lives in a waterbody then obviously it knows how to swim. With that being said, it is important to know that land tortoises aren’t the only turtles that are bad swimmers, land turtles such as box turtles are also poor swimmers.

Habitats Of Aquatic Turtles

Western Painted Turtles
Western Painted Turtles in pond

Turtles spend almost all their lives in aquatic environments. As such, they are perfectly adapted for this environment. Not only are their feet webbed and their shells aerodynamic, but also they are capable of holding thor breath for long stretches.

Some turtles are known for being able to hold their breath for several months as they brumate under a frozen pond. Turtles such as painted turtles and Japanese pond turtles can stay underwater for several months.

However, when not brumating, turtles can remain underwater for 4 to 7 hours when they sleep or 10 to 30 minutes when they are active. The ability of aquatic turtles to hold their breath for extended periods ensures that they are perfectly adapted to their aquatic environment.

Habitats Of Land Tortoises

Aldabra Tortoise

Tortoises, unlike turtles, aren’t adapted to aquatic environments instead they are adapted to live on land. Their strong elephantine legs allow them to navigate the grasslands and scrub forests where many turtles are found.

Their bulky shells also provide protection from predators that have sharp claws and teeth. While aquatic turtles are fast swimmers, land tortoises are slow. Their armored shells provide the needed protection.

Land tortoises also cannot hold their breath for long as they don’t need to. They live on land. A tortoise will drown when submerged in water.

Some Frequently Asked Questions

Can Tortoises Cool Off In A Pond On A Hot Day?

Leopard tortoise in waterhole in South Africa

While turtles cannot swim, they may cool off in shallow waters on a hot day, on occasions like these, the pond is usually shallow enough for turtles to walk in.

There are times when turtles may try to cool off in deep ponds or rivers and end up getting carried off. Tortoises can float on water but cannot swim.

Do Tortoises Drink Water?

Desert tortoise drinking water from a water dish

Turtles just like any animal need to drink water to survive. Unlike humans, dogs, and many other animals, tortoises tend to drink less water. They get a lot of their water from the plants and fruits they eat.

Sources of water wild tortoises rely on include ponds, streams, pools of water that collect near rocks and in depressions. Tortoises may dig depressions to collect water.

When you keep a pet tortoise ensure you provide it with clean water which must be changed every day. Although you may never see your turtle drink water, they do.

Some tortoises can go several months without drinking. If your turtle is not drinking just ensure it is healthy and hydrated. Tortoises are notorious for refusing to drink water.

How Long Can Tortoises Survive Underwater?

Leopard tortoise drinking water from muddy puddle

Tortoises, unlike turtles, cannot go long periods without breathing. A tortoise will die within minutes of being underwater. Since they cannot swim, a drowning tortoise will struggle to get out of the water.

Do tortoises like to swim?

Giant galapagos tortoise outside of a shallow pond

No, tortoises cannot swim due to their physiology, including solid, sturdy feet and high-domed, bulky shells. While some may enjoy cooling off in shallow water, placing them in deep water can result in drowning.

Can baby tortoises swim?

Baby tortoises soaking in very shallow water in dish

No, baby tortoises, just like adult tortoises, cannot swim. Their physiology is not adapted for swimming, and they can drown if placed in deep water.

Can tortoises swim in pools?

Leopard tortoise walking in mucky shallow water

No, tortoises should not be put in pools as they are unable to swim. Even shallow water pools can pose a risk if the tortoise cannot easily exit.

Can tortoises float?

Large Galapagos tortoise nearly fully submerged in small pool

While tortoises may sometimes float in water due to trapped air under their shells, they do not naturally float or swim. Any substantial amount of water can be a risk, as they are not designed to navigate in water and can easily drown.

Can Tortoises Survive Underwater?

Three galápagos tortoises in Equador basking in shallow muddy water

No, tortoises cannot survive underwater. They are not adapted for an aquatic environment and will drown within minutes if submerged, as they cannot swim or hold their breath for extended periods.

How Long Can A Tortoise Hold Its Breath Underwater?

Galapagos Giant tortoise in shallow water

A tortoise cannot hold its breath for extended periods like aquatic turtles can. If submerged, a tortoise may drown within minutes as it lacks the physical adaptations necessary for prolonged breath-holding.

What Happens If You Throw A Tortoise In Water?

Giant galapagos tortoise making sound while it sits in still shallow water

If a tortoise is thrown into water, especially deep water, it is likely to drown as it cannot swim or hold its breath for extended periods. Its solid, sturdy legs and high-domed shell are not suited for navigating in water.

Can You Save A Drowning Tortoise?

Group of gian tortoises soaking in shallow water

Yes, if you find a tortoise in water, immediately remove it and keep it on a flat surface. See our herpetologists article on drowning turtles for guidance on what to do.

Wrapping up

Unlike turtles, tortoises can’t swim. This is down to several reasons. For starters, tortoises have short heavy legs. These aren’t best for swimming. In addition to their short elephantine legs, tortoises do not have streamlined aerodynamic shells.

Lastly, tortoises cannot hold their breath for long. All of these reasons make tortoises horrible swimmers. Tortoises cannot swim and as such should not be placed in deep water.

Many tortoises including giant tortoises like to soak in shallow water. This allows them to drink and hydrate. Make sure to provide your turtle with water at all times. If you have any additional information or questions, leave us a comment.

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