What are turtles? Are they the same as tortoises? What about terrapins?

Although it might be general knowledge to some, other’s may end up dehydrating a turtle or drown a tortoise. I came across a lady who did not give water to a red eared slider because she thought it was a tortoise, and tortoises don’t like water. So let’s clear the air and we will cover these terms simply. I’m not going to cover any sort scientific groups blah blah blah, just what they mean and what is the common consensus with using these terms.


Scientifically, ‘Turtles’ is a group that includes all of them. Be it land or water or sea, they are all under the group called ‘Turtles’. BUT in common understanding, the term ‘turtles’ usually refer to those that can swim or likes water. This includes the common Red Eared Sliders that we see in pet stores.

Tortoises are dry, stumpy-footed and non-swimming turtles. They are no longer legal in Singapore so this term, unless you are in a zoo or looking at your child’s animal charts, likely will not apply.

Terrapins are semi-aquatic ‘turtles’, meaning they are a hybrid of land and water animals. Simply put, they are in between a turtle and a tortoise. So let’s summarize it in commonly understood terms.

Turtles – Generally referred to aquatic turtles
Tortoises – Land turtles that are dry, do not swim and illegal in Singapore
Terrapins – Turtles that needs land and water

What turtles are available in Singapore?

Out of all the species of turtles in the world, for some odd reason, only 2 species are allowed in Singapore. They are your $5 Red Eared Sliders and the rich man’s turtle, the Malayan Box Turtle.

In this site, when I say turtles, I am generally referring to Red Eared Sliders, NOT the Malayan Box Turtle. Why? Because if you were to drop $150 on a Malayan Box Turtle, chances are you would have done your research. If you are having any other species of turtles, the basic care guides still apply.

Because this site is for Singaporean keepers and not a reference for a final year research paper, I will skip the ultra-technical and scientific jargon and simplify facts about red eared sliders that are relevant to you.

How big do they get?

Most people are absolutely clueless on how big a turtle can get at the time of purchase. Because of this, most are not prepared for the commitment needed to care for such animals. How big they get depends on their gender. Females will get much larger than males.

When we measure size, we are talking about the shell length or straight carapace length. A male turtle will max out at about 23cm (9 inches) and a female turtle will max out at about 30cm (12 inches). Your 50 cents sized terrapin will grow to be a dinner plate, keep that in mind when preparing their habitat. To how long it takes for them to reach the maximum size depends mainly on feeding. If you overfeed, they will grow at an accelerated rate which will have an adverse effect their health. Otherwise, it will take 5-10 years given proper feeding routine.

Unfortunately, nobody is able to tell gender of a baby turtle. Genders can only be determined when they reach about 10cm (4 inches) in length.

How long do they live?

Have you ever met a person who had lost a turtle due to old age? Never. Because your turtles will still be there when you get married and have kids. If you already have a child, your turtles will be there for his university graduation. Because a turtle is known to live for 20-40 years, leaning towards 40 years for terrapins in captivity. To put things into perspective, a hamster’s lifespan is 2-3 years, a dog’s/cat’s lifespan is 10-15 years and your child’s care is about 21-25 years.

Do they bite?

Maybe. Each turtle, or any pet for that matter, have their own personality. Some are more feisty while others are more submissive. It also depends on you as an owner. If you keep provoking a turtle and getting way into their safe zone, they may bite. I have never been bitten by my own turtles but I have heard others have turtles that will take a chomp any chance they get. Their bites are not gentle and they will hold on, often piercing through skin. I have tried hand feeding a baby terrapin and their bite hurts even for their size.

Do they hibernate?

Yes and no. In their native habitat of United States and northern Mexico, they brumate (a less extreme form of hibernation) during the cold seasons. This means their activities will be highly reduced, this is their survival mechanism. But in Singapore context, they will never go into a state of brumation due to our tropical climate. Turtle care is therefore much more straightforward here. However, because they do not hibernate, they grow faster.

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