What Are the Different Types of Tortoise?

Jessica Ellis

There are dozens of different types of tortoise, ranging from tiny Russian tortoises to the few remaining giant tortoises of the Galapagos islands. The many and varied species of tortoise may be somewhat difficult to sort out, as some are known by different names in different regions. While each type of tortoise has its own unique qualities, some of the most fascinating reptiles in this category include the Galapagos giant, the desert tortoise, and the Indian star. Unfortunately, due to hunting and habitat loss, many tortoise species are considered vulnerable to extinction, and several varieties are functionally or completely extinct.

The Galapagos Islands are home to giant tortoises.
The Galapagos Islands are home to giant tortoises.

The Galapagos giant tortoise may be the one of the world's largest, with adult males reaching up to 475 lbs (215 kg). Attaining lengths of over 4 ft (1.2) meters and living more than a century, these grand reptiles have long been important to the conservationist community. The fertile Galapagos islands are actually home to more than ten species of tortoise, despite the extinction of several lines through hunting and habitat encroachment. Though each separate type may have small genetic and physical differences, all species in the area are typically referred to as one primary species.

A tortoise.
A tortoise.

While some types of tortoise prefer temperate regions, the hardy desert tortoise of the southwest United States seems to have a penchant for extreme living. Thanks to a handy talent for digging burrows, the desert tortoise can survive temperatures of well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius by hiding under the cool earth. Well-suited for arid living, these land-loving reptiles may also be able to survive more than a year without water, thanks to an extremely slow energy rate. Protected in the United States through environmental law, the desert tortoise remains listed as vulnerable to extinction by some environmental experts.

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One of the most striking types of tortoise is the beautiful Indian star, named for its unique, patterned carapace. Star tortoises are instantly recognizable, thanks to the yellow or tan and black star shaped pattern that often peaks around several small humps in the shell. Native to India and Pakistan, these small tortoises are frequently sold as pets, and can live for up to 80 years. Thanks to breeding programs, the Indian star species has a flourishing population, both domestically and in the wild.

With so many wonderful types of tortoise, it is easy to assume that they maintain a steady population around the world. Unfortunately, poaching, illegal capture for pet trade, and habitat loss has taken a serious toll on many different types of tortoise, leading to more than a dozen extinctions. The importation of non-native hunting animals, such as a cats and dogs, has also been blamed for population depletion in many areas. Many conservation groups actively work on improving environmental protection for vulnerable species, in order to ensure that future generations can still enjoy these unique animals in the wild.

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