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Home > Turtles > Are Turtles Reptiles? Vet-Reviewed Taxonomy & Facts

Are Turtles Reptiles? Vet-Reviewed Taxonomy & Facts

terrapin turtle having sun bath

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Dr. Lorna Whittemore

Veterinarian, MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Reptiles and amphibians share many features, like being cold-blooded and living in or near water. However, there are some features that set them apart. Turtles are classified as reptiles and not amphibians for several reasons, the biggest of which is their distinctive outer shell.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes turtles reptiles and the science of what makes this true.


What is Taxonomy?

According to Britannica,1 taxonomy is a process by which scientists classify organisms based on shared characteristics. They do this with a structured system with multiple levels. The highest levels are the broadest, containing the most organisms. Then, as each group is systematically described in more detail based on more specific characteristics, these levels become smaller until their exact species is defined.

Starting at the top with the broadest group, there are eight levels to this system of classification:

  • Domain
  • Kingdom
  • Phylum
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species
happy cute sea turtle swimming in the ocean
Image credit:, Shutterstock

Amphibians vs Reptiles

It’s important to understand the differences between amphibians and reptiles to understand the true classification of a turtle.

Amphibians are a class of organisms called Amphibia. This class comprises newts, salamanders, toads, and frogs. All amphibians spend part of their lives on land and part in water, and all are born with gills that some later outgrow. Although amphibians can survive outside water, their skin must remain moist at all times so they can continue to absorb oxygen.

Reptiles, on the other hand, rely on breathing through their lungs for oxygen, so their skin is typically covered in scales or another form of thick protection, like a shell. This class, called Reptilia, includes crocodiles, alligators, snakes, lizards, and turtles.

Although amphibians and reptiles are different in many ways, they share some characteristics, putting them in the same group, called herpetofauna. Called “herps” for short, these organisms are cold-blooded vertebrates.

The Turtle Reptile Family

Testudines is the name of the “family” known as turtles. Turtles all share similar features, placing them in this classification of the multi-level system. All 356 known species of turtles have:

  • A bony upper and lower shell
  • No teeth
  • A backbone
  • Hip and shoulder bones inside their rib cage
  • Long necks that stretch outward or to the side

Although they share these features, every species appears different. Shells may be tall or flat, wide or narrow. Necks may be longer or shorter, and their color may vary. Where they live is also different depending on the species. Some prefer to live only on land, some only in the sea, and some are semi-aquatic, meaning they live on both land and in the water. All tortoise species fall under the category of turtle, as do terrapins.


Common Turtle Species

Turtles are fun to keep as pets and are a unique way to share your home with reptiles. If you are thinking of adopting a turtle, be sure to research the breed and their care requirements, have all the proper turtle equipment set up in advance, and prepare any other residents in the home for their arrival.

Red-Eared Slider

red eared slider turtle basks on a rock in a turtle pond
Image Credit: Gerald A. DeBoer, Shutterstock

The Red-Eared Slider is a very popular turtle species commonly kept as pets. They are easy to find at most pet shops and are less complicated to care for than some other species. You can quickly identify a Red-Eared Slider by the spot of red coloring along the side of their face.

Eastern Box Turtle

Eastern Box Turtle
Image Credit: Lisa Holder, Shutterstock

You’ll instantly recognize the Eastern Box Turtle by the distinctive brown and gold marble coloring on its shell. While we can keep them as pets, they are shy and don’t like to be handled much. Instead, watch them glide through the water in a large tank and you’ll be mesmerized by their grace.

Common Musk Turtle

Common Musk Turtle on the ground
Image Credit: Frode Jacobsen, Shutterstock

Unlike many other turtle breeds found as pets, the Musk Turtle is a weak swimmer and prefers to bask on land. It doesn’t like to be held much and likes peace and quiet. When stressed, it will emit a musky odor that keeps predators at bay.


Endangered Turtle Species

Not all turtles are as commonly found as those above and can be kept as pets. In fact, many species of turtles are critically endangered. Efforts to rebuild habitats can be slow, but some have shown effectiveness in helping these turtles regain their populations. Some zoos and other animal habitats have begun breeding programs to bolster turtle populations, releasing young turtles into their natural habitats when they are old enough to survive on their own.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

Kemp's ridley sea turtle underwater
Image Credit: WorldTHROUGHme, Shutterstock

The Kemp’s Ridley Sea turtle is found along the United States’ eastern coast and the Gulf of Mexico. It is listed as the rarest species of sea turtle and is critically endangered. The biggest threats to the Kemp’s Ridley Sea turtle include habitat loss, shrimp trawls, and pollution, like that from oil spills common in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Image Credit: Andrei Armiagov, Shutterstock

The Hawksbill Sea turtle can be found throughout the world, living in tropical reefs. However, its populations have declined significantly in all locations because of the tortoiseshell trade going as far back as ancient times when Egypt, Rome, China, and others all highly valued these shells for luxurious jewelry. That trend continues to this day.

Painted Terrapin

painted terrapin turtle in the water
Image Credit: Mr. Meijer, Shutterstock

The Painted Terrapin is only found in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. It is listed as one of the 25 most endangered freshwater turtle species in the world. Much of the reason for this is habitat destruction caused by the palm oil and shrimp fishery industries. However, poachers are also a major threat to the species as they capture them for pets or as food.



Because turtles are cold-blooded, have a backbone, breathe through lungs, and have tough, scaly skin, they are reptiles and not amphibians. However, they are close cousins to amphibians who are in a similar classification regarding their taxonomy. Some reptile species are common and can be kept as beautiful pets when cared for properly.

Others are endangered and in need of serious intervention if the species is to continue so that future generations can learn from these magnificent and sometimes giant creatures.

See also:

Featured Image Credit: ULADZISLAU PASHKEVICH, Shutterstock

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