What Are the Anatomical Differences Between Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins?

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Updated on Aug 31, 2012

Grade Level: 6th - 8th; Type: Zoology


Investigate the anatomical differences between turtles, tortoises, and terrapins, three similar animals.

Research Questions:

Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are all reptiles and their general appearance can be described as short, stout, and hard-shelled as well as dark in color. Many people confuse one for another. In this experiment, we'll try to map the differences between them.


From a pet store or zoo:

  • A turtle
  • A tortoise
  • A terrapin
  • A magnifying glass
  • Pen and paper for notes

Experimental Procedure

  1. Take a magnifying glass and observe the turtle, tortoise, and terrapin.
  2. Make sure to observe the shell, the hardness of the shell, the shape of the arms/legs, underneath the turtle, and in all areas.
  3. Write down any differences that you see.
  4. Compare these differences, but also think about the functional differences. What role do these differences play in their survival and habitat?

Suggested Chart




Terms/Concepts: Turtles; Tortoises; Terrapins; Reptiles


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