Little living tanks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 October, 2008, 12:00am

Turtle, Terrapin or Tortoise?

Terrapins, tortoises and turtles look very similar. They have a lot in common, too. They are all reptiles and they have a hard shell. These tough little animals are like living tanks.

But there are differences, too. Some are very big and some are small. Some live in the sea, some in rivers and others stay on dry land.

The difference in names comes from the different ways people speak English.

In British English turtles live in the sea; terrapins live in fresh water; and tortoises live on land. In Australian English tortoises live on land, while turtles can live in the sea. In American English turtles live on land and in fresh water; sea turtles live in the sea; and terrapins live in slightly salty water.

To avoid confusion, some people call them all chelonians (pronounced: chuh-LOH-knee-ans). The word chelonian comes from an ancient Greek word, chelone, meaning turtle.

Scientists also call them Testudines (pronounced te-STOO-doh-knees). This is the scientific name for the group of reptiles to which all terrapins, tortoises and turtles belong.

Chelonians or testudines ... it's up to you!

True or false?

Terrapins, turtles and tortoises:

a. are all reptiles

b. are called chelonians by fans

c. all belong to the group Testudine

fab fact!

Scientists tagged one leatherback turtle in Indonesia in 2003. It then swam 20,558km across the Pacific Ocean, landing in Hawaii. The journey took 647 days

The Frilled Turtle

Fill in the gaps with the following words:

camouflage, webbed feet, sensitive

The matamata (pronounced MAH-tah-MAH-tah) looks like a spiny dinosaur wearing a turtle shell. This turtle lives in rivers, lakes and marshes in the north of South America.

The matamata has _______________ and can swim well but it doesn't chase its prey.

A hungry matamata stands in the shallows and dips its neck into the water. The flaps of loose skin around its neck work like _______________. They make the turtle look like a dead tree branch.

The matamata's neck skin is also very _______________. It can feel the water move when fish swim by.

When something tasty comes close, the turtle opens its mouth and takes a big gulp of water. The fish is sucked in, too. The turtle then spits out the water and swallows the fish whole.

Matamatas look funny but they're clever hunters.

The Great Green Turtle

Choose the correct alternative:

Green turtles live in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. They are famous for their size and strong/long life. Green turtles grow up to 1.5 metres long and can weigh 315 kilograms. Their shells are so tough that only big sharks can crunch them up.

Green turtles can life/live more than 100 years. They travel huge distances but return to the beach they were born on to lay eggs. Some travel 2,600 kilometres or more to get back home. Unfortunately green turtles are endangered. They are killed by fishing nets, and their habitat is being destroyed by pollution. Also, poachers kill turtles for their shell, meat/seed and eggs.

You can help save the green turtle by never buying turtle products, reporting poachers, supporting conservation programmes and by educating others.


A radiated tortoise called Tu'i Malila was a royal pet in Tonga from 1777 to 1966. She lived 189 years and is the oldest animal on record. The oldest human was Jeanne Calment of France who died in 1997 aged 122 years and 164 days.

Turtle Toughie

Find words that mean:

another, strong, illegal hunter

The four-eyed turtle lives in streams and ponds in Hong Kong, the mainland, Laos and Vietnam.

The four-eyed turtle has a beautiful brown shell with yellow stripes. It gets its name from the two spots on the back of its shell that look just like an extra pair of eyes.

This turtle may only be about 15 centimetres long, but it's very tough. It eats almost anything, including worms, grass, fruit, lettuce, snails, crickets and pondweed.

It's also a very good climber. Zoos have to build cages these escape artists can't climb out of.

Although it's well-adapted to the environment, this turtle is endangered. Poachers kill it to sell to Chinese traditional medicine makers and for its lovely shell. Isn't that a shame?

fab fact!

The first turtles appeared about 215 million years ago. Like the crocodile family that also appeared around this time, the turtles developed strong shells to protect themselves from predators. Snakes and lizards that have no body armour appeared much later

See for Yourself!

The hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback and green turtle all live in Hong Kong. However, the olive ridley and leatherback turtles are extremely rare.

Good news is that green turtles are nesting on the beach at Sham Wan, southern Lamma Island. The beach is closed during the nesting season (June to October) but you can visit at other times - and maybe catch a glimpse of these wonderful animals.

If you prefer to stay in town, visit the Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens or Ocean Park to see the two Greek tortoises and six yellow-margined box turtles living there. Staff say their favourite food is hibiscus leaves, especially Chinese hibiscus. So far, the zoo's chelonians haven't laid any eggs but maybe they will soon.

When you go looking for wildlife, remember all wild turtles, terrapins and tortoises are protected in Hong Kong. If you see one, take a picture and alert the authorities. This will help them keep records - and ensure our living national treasures survive.A box turtle at Ocean Park.

Answer the following questions. To test your memory, try answering without referring to the text. If you can't remember the details, read the piece again.

1. Terrapins, tortoises and turtles are all:

a. reptiles

b. amphibians

c. a mix of reptile and amphibian

2. The matamata turtle lives in:

a. North American oceans

b. African rivers

c. South American rivers

3. The green turtle is famous for:

a. its frilly neck

b. its climbing ability

c. its size and long life

4. Which rare turtle breeds on Lamma Island?

a. four-eyed turtle

b. green turtle

c. radiated turtle

5. How many eyes does the four-eyed turtle have?

a. two

b. three

c. four

6. The radiated tortoise Tu'i Malila lived:

a. about 80 years

b. about 120 years

c. about 180 years


True or false? T, T, T

Correct alternative: long, live, meat

Fill in the gaps: webbed feet, camouflage, sensitive

Synonyms: extra, tough, poacher

Quiz: 1. a, 2. c, 3. c, 4. b, 5. a, 6. c