Tortoises appear to be fairly slow animals but, in reality, they can be much quicker than you might expect. While it’s true that no tortoise will really win the race, they can move reasonably quickly and the distances they can travel might shock you.
How far can a tortoise travel in a day? Depending on the species and its size, a tortoise can travel anywhere between 300 meters to 100+ kilometres in a day. Giant tortoises are notoriously slow travellers while smaller, pet tortoises can travel much farther as pacing around is a natural behaviour for them.
So, let’s take a look at the speed of tortoises and some famous high speed tortoises – ones that are famous for breaking tortoise speeds. (We’ll also have a bit of fun looking at the fable of the tortoise and the hare.)
How Far Can A Tortoise Travel In A Day?
Let’s acknowledge first that there are huge differences in tortoise speeds. A giant tortoise is not a fast animal, and, in fact, they are pegged at speeds of about 60 meters an hour! That makes them the slowest members of the tortoise world.
Related article: How to look for a missing tortoise
They’ve actually studied how far a giant tortoise can get and it’s not impressive – their maximum range is about 10 kilometers a month! That’s about 300 meters a day.
So, we’re not going to put a giant tortoise up as our sprinting tortoise champion because it can barely outpace a garden snail. Fortunately, this makes it very unlikely that you would lose a giant tortoise and finding such a large creature again, even if it did wander away a little, should be relatively easy.
There are, however, other types of tortoise such as those that live in deserts that are pretty quick. They won’t break any land speed records, mind you, but at around 5 kilometers per hour, a desert tortoise can certainly move some reasonable distances and certainly shouldn’t be considered “slow”.
Related article: 3 reasons your tortoise keeps pacing
The Theoretical Maximum Tortoise Travel Distance
So, it is from our desert tortoise that we will take our theoretical maximum tortoise travel distance. 5 kilometers per hour works out at a maximum 120 kilometers in a day (that’s about 75 miles).
However, in reality this is not going to happen. Tortoises aren’t built for walking for 24 hours at a time. Even if they were built for it, they would likely get tired and slow down and thus, would never spend all their time at 5 kilometers per hour.
The big factor holding them back is that as reptiles, the level of physical effort combined with the desert sun (these are desert tortoises) would make them so hot that they would become very ill or even, possibly, die long before they completed such a marathon.
So, even if we assume, that they can maintain their speed for long periods of time – they certainly can’t sustain the effort for 24 hours.
So, if we had to approximate how far these tortoises can really get in a day, let’s assume that they can manage about 6 hours in any given period. That would mean that the fastest tortoises could make it about 30 kilometers (20 miles) in a single day. That’s still pretty impressive.
It’s worth noting that most pet tortoises are not desert sprinters and they’re not going to be able to travel this far, though they are faster than giant tortoises and, as we will see a little later in this article, they can travel pretty far.
Related article: Here’s why tortoises should not roam around the house
What About Turtles? How Far Can They Travel In A Day?
Once again, there is a fairly obvious caveat that turtle speed depends on the breed, size, gender, etc. of the turtle but there is absolutely no doubt that your average turtle is much quicker than your average tortoise, as least when it’s in the water.
However, there is also some evidence to show that turtles are also faster than tortoises when they walk.
Turtles appear to be able to walk at around 0.47 meters per second, that’s 1 mile an hour or 1,600 meters an hour or 24 miles a day. That’s not quite as fast as the fastest tortoises but is probably farther than most tortoises can manage.
However, when it comes to swimming – things chance dramatically. A leatherback turtle is the fastest turtle and It travels at approximately 22 miles an hour when swimming full pelt. That’s nearly 35 kilometers an hour.
If a leatherback turtle could keep this speed up for 24 hours, it would travel over 528 miles or 840 kilometers! That means the theoretical maximum distance traveled by a leatherback is far, far greater than that of any tortoise.
In fact, a leatherback turtle travels over 10,000 miles to mate and it would manage this route in under 19 days traveling at full speed.
So, the world’s fastest turtle species is easy to identify but, obviously, there’s no-one in the water on hand to work out which particular turtle is the fastest and that means – it’s only tortoises that get the attention when they travel serious distances in a day.
The Famous Tortoise: Six Miles In A Day!
Freddie is a 70 year old British tortoise and you might think that the cool weather of the UK might put a cramp in Freddie’s elderly stride but that’s not how things turned out. His owners returned from work one evening to find that Freddie had fled.
They found a hole in the fence where they believe that Freddie bashed his way out of the garden though. Apparently, this was because Freddie had love on his mind and, somehow, he could ascertain the call of a lonely lady tortoise nearly 6 miles away in the zoo.
So, Freddie went in search of his lady love and he very nearly made it too! In less than a day Freddie hightailed it all the way to the zoo where he was discovered in a lane by a passerby. They took Freddie to a tortoise sanctuary.
Fortunately, the sanctuary and Freddie’s owners were on speaking terms and it wasn’t long before they were reunited. His owners said, “He’s a typical tortoise – slow. He picks up a bit of speed when he sees a dandelion, though. Whether he’d had a few dandelions before he set off, I don’t know.”
What we do know is that when they were reunited, it was time for Freddie to go into hibernation, so he got a good rest following his marathon (for a tortoise) endeavor!
6 miles in a day proves that tortoises can travel decent distances, but Freddie is definitely not the fastest tortoise in the world.
Meet Bertie: The Fastest Tortoise In The World (So Far)
The fastest tortoise in the world is another British tortoise (it must be the readily available supply of dandelions in that green and pleasant land that do it) and Bertie, for that’s his name, has been adjudged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest tortoise in the world.
However, it’s fair to say that the record is very much focused on sprinting and not on long distances. Bertie was asked to cover the length of 5.48 meters, and he did so in just 19.59 seconds. That meant his speed of around 0.28 meters per second broke the previous record of 0.125 meters per second which had also been held by a British tortoise (by the name of Charlie since 1977).
This doesn’t mean that Bertie is actually the fastest tortoise on earth, mind you. The big problem here is that there are very few challengers for this particular record, in fact, Bertie was the first tortoise to give this a go in nearly 40 years.
It’s quite possible that every tortoise in Britain is faster than Bertie but nobody else has ever dragged their tortoise down to the track and watched them waddle along it. That doesn’t, of course, take anything away from Bertie – it’s not his fault nobody else wants the record.
You can see Bertie in fine form on this video below:
Bertie has since retired from racing and is shacked up happily with his girlfriend Shelly where his world record certificate is prominently displayed on the wall by their enclosure.
Dan Bull’s Song
Not only did Bertie win a world record but he also appears to have inspired Dan Bull’s contribution to the Guinness legacy – the song “the fastest tortoise on the planet” which you can listen to on the video below:
The Tortoise And The Hare: Aesop’s Fable
So, now we turn to the most famous racing tortoise of all time. The tortoise in Aesop’s fable for the tortoise and the hare.
It goes something like this:
A hare was making fun of a tortoise one day for he was very slow.
“Do you ever get anywhere?” laughed the hare mockingly.
“Yes,” replied the tortoise, “and I’ll get there sooner than you think. I’ll run you a race and prove it.”
The hare thought this was pretty funny and the thought of running a race with the tortoise really amused him, but given it was for fun – he decided to go along.
They asked a fox to be the judge, he marked off the distance and then got the race started.
The hare run quickly away from the tortoise and soon the tortoise lost sight of him. The tortoise felt a bit stupid for trying to race the hare but he decided to keep going.
The hare, having seen how big his lead was, decided he would take a quick sleep by the side of the track.
The tortoise kept plodding ahead and after a long while, he passed the snoozing hare and he kept right on going.
Eventually, the hare awoke but it was too late, it didn’t matter how fast he was, the tortoise had crossed the finishing line!
The more of this story is “the race is not always to the swift.”
Can A Tortoise Really Beat A Hare?
A hare can reach a speed of up to 50 kilometers an hour. It would seem that there are no circumstances, whatsoever, that a hare is going to lose to a tortoise in a race but maybe, there are?
Is It OK To Redefine The Race Terms?
One thing about Aesop’s fable is that it never defines the race being run. So, maybe we can fiddle with the terms a little and see if there are circumstances under which our tortoise doesn’t need a huge burst of speed to win the race?
Firstly, the tortoise cannot win under any circumstances if the race is a sprint. The hare would be past the finish line over any reasonable distance before the tortoise even looked like it was warmed up.
The hare is about 100 times faster than the average tortoise and 10 times faster than the speediest of desert tortoises. There are no circumstances in which the tortoise wins unless the hare becomes injured or is otherwise removed from the race (whether by falling asleep like Aesop’s hare or being eaten by an eagle).
You might think that the tortoise has an advantage over long distances. After all, those desert tortoises are pretty hardy and can really wander around over vast swathes of sand and rock.
Sadly, the jackrabbit is also built for covering large distances in desert conditions. Their ears are a very useful cooling system which gives them the ability to handle the heat without much problem.
We’ve seen some people try to argue that this race might be a draw but given that they would both run for about the same length of time before dropping and that the jackrabbit is faster – the hare wins the endurance race, hands down.
Many people would argue that the race in Aesop’s fable is not, in fact, a foot race but a metaphorical race. If that’s the case – the tortoise has been running for a lot longer on the evolutionary ladder than the jackrabbit has.
The earliest tortoise-like animals appeared around 200 million years ago, and the actual tortoise has been around for about 80 million years.
The jackrabbit, on the other hand, can barely claim a family history of 40 million years. The evolutionary race is the tortoise’s win!
Then there’s the question of a lifetime of perseverance. Your jackrabbit is only on the planet for a maximum of 8 years though a typical jackrabbit in the wild will probably only make it for 6 years.
A tortoise can live for up to 150 years by comparison! That means it’s quite possible that, over a lifetime, your tortoise can travel farther than a jackrabbit, much farther.
How fast can a tortoise travel in a day? Realistically 30 to 60 kilometers is about as far as a tortoise can travel in a day even though the theoretical maximum is at around 120 kilometers. Turtles, of course, can swim even farther and might be able to cover 4-5 times that distance!
So, while your tortoise might not be the animal worlds Usain Bolt, he or she’s probably no slouch either and that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to get a move on if your tortoise gets lost – the longer you leave it, the farther they may have gotten.