It’s no secret that tortoises and turtles are long-lived creatures. We’ve all heard stories of the big sulcata tortoises at zoos living for decades, even outliving their caretakers. But what does that mean for regular people and their pet tortoises? Will they outlive us? How the heck do tortoises and turtles live so long anyway?
Below, we’ll delve deep into the details of how and why tortoises and turtles have such long lifespans. Knowing this information can help you make sure your pet tortoise or pet turtle gets everything they need to follow you through your whole life. And, of course, we’ll give you some tips on how to be sure your tortoises and turtles are cared for after you’re gone.
How long do tortoises and turtles live?
It’s not possible to give an exact answer for every turtle or tortoise, but we can give estimates. Pet tortoises are often touted as living an impressive 50 to 100 years or more. However, scientists believe that even older tortoises could be wandering around in the wild.
One specific species they’re fascinated with is the Galapagos tortoise. Since this behemoth tortoise has lived in isolation for so long and their lives are measured in centuries, it’s very difficult to get an accurate age on them. These are the big fellas they think could have lived 400 or more years.
In 2006, a giant tortoise named Adwaitya died at the ripe old age of 255 years. Apparently, this tortoise had been brought to India as a gift in the mid-18th century. Considering we’re in the 21st century now, that tortoise had seen more of the world than any one of us has. It saw a world without electricity, cars, and cell phones! Not that torts care about such things, of course.
But what about turtles? Yes, we know, all tortoises are technically turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. In this instance, we’re talking about the water-loving turtle branch of that family tree. Some turtles can live up to 80 years in captivity, but the Turtle Conservation Society says that it’s possible some larger turtles may be in the hundreds of years, too.
The bottom line is that it’s really hard to measure a life that spans centuries, especially if you consider that humans are lucky to make it to 100 years themselves. In the grand scheme of things, scientists haven’t been tracking turtle and tortoise ages long enough to have accurate records of the longest-lived individuals. If we started with a tortoise that hatched today, it could potentially take 3, 4, or 5 generations of scientists to track until its final day.
It’s unlikely that your turtle or tortoise will live quite that long. Still, even if we estimate a pet tortoise’s lifespan out to 50 years, that’s a significant investment of your time, care, and money. Are you ready for that?
How do tortoises and turtles live so long?
The short answer is that it’s hardwired into their DNA. They were simply built to last. For comparatively short-lived creatures such as humans, a lifespan of 500 years seems impossible to imagine. What would you even do for 500 years?
Delayed, extended, and prolonged reproduction
For tortoises and turtles, things move much more slowly than they do for people. For one, they grow at an incredibly slow pace. Some don’t reach sexual maturity until 20 or more years into their lives. In comparison, dogs can begin reproducing as early as 6 months of age, rabbits as early as just 3 or 4 months, and many insects emerge from their eggs fully grown and ready to get busy.
What’s the deal here? How come tortoises and turtles get to live so long while the rest of us die off after having a few babies?
That’s one reason. Babies. Some species are designed to have lots and lots of babies because they have lots of predators. The more babies they have, and the earlier they start, the more likely some will make it to adulthood to continue the genetic line. Other animals spend most of their energy on just staying alive. They have fewer predators, or they have ways to defend against predators, which means they don’t need to start having babies so young, nor do they need to have so many since they’ll live a long time.
For tortoises and turtles, they’re carrying around some impressive defenses in the form of their shells. They have an evolutionary advantage over animals with fewer or weaker defenses. They know they can live a long time and spread their clutches of offspring out over centuries, so they’re really in no rush.
Some of this has to do with the tortoise and turtle DNA, but some also has to do with location. Isolated species will have far fewer predators to worry about.
Location dictates longevity for tortoises and turtles
Perhaps this goes without saying, but where you live can have a profound effect on how long you live. The same goes for our tort and turtle buddies. Those species living in harsh environments may have ways to combat the elements, but that will also delay breeding. They may need to wait for optimal breeding environments to present themselves, including the right weather, temperature, and moisture.
Species that live in isolation, like the Galapagos tortoises we mentioned earlier, will have far fewer predators to worry about. They won’t be subjected to as much pollution or interference from humans either. This helps them live their long, leisurely lives in relative peace, simply waiting for the next perfect time to breed.
While not a hard and fast rule, generally speaking, the bigger an animal is, the longer it can live. In the case of turtles and tortoises, that is certainly true. The longest-lived tortoises tend to be the huge breeds. Same with turtles. That means, again, it’s unlikely that someone’s small pet tortoise or turtle will live for centuries.
But that size also comes from the relative safety of an isolated life, plentiful food, and good environments that encourage growth. A large breed turtle kept in terrible, dirty, and bacteria-laden tanks will not grow as large or live as long as one kept in pristine, large tanks.
Believe it or not, turtles and tortoises are fairly social creatures. They each have complex social structures that they follow in the wild. Even though tortoises, for example, are mostly solitary, they do seek out companionship, mating, and even the occasional fight.
Tortoises and turtles can both recognize and remember faces of humans, but more impressively, they can recognize subtle changes in smells and body language from other tortoises and turtles. Their language is complicated and we have barely scratched the surface of it, but these intelligent and careful reptiles thrive in their own kind of social order.
Slower metabolism means longer life
When we said turtles and tortoises live life much slower, we weren’t kidding. Part of their longevity comes from their incredibly slow metabolisms. Plant matter, the tortoise’s main diet, is difficult to digest on its own. Put that plant matter into an already slow-moving reptile and it’s going to take a long time to make its way back out.
That works in the tort’s favor. In fact, they use this ultra-slow digestion and metabolism to their advantage. The species that hibernate are especially good at this since they’ll often be sleeping for months at a time and not eating at all.
Tortoise and turtle lifespan: It’s mostly theory anyway
We wish we could give solid, exact answers to the question of pet tortoise and turtle lifespans, but science hasn’t come that far yet. In reality, we’re just now starting to understand the very basics of aging in general. Most research is aimed at humans, of course, but the scientists who are looking into tortoise longevity have come up with the above theories.
Each of the things mentioned here so far has merit, but none have been scientifically proven without a doubt. Rather than sticking to one answer, however, nature is rarely that simple. More likely, we’ll soon discover that tortoises and turtles live so long because of a variety of factors that include evolution, location, and certain strains of DNA.
For now, the best we can do is explain how certain factors can either increase or decrease a tortoise’s or turtle’s life, and then hope you do right by your pets.
How to help your tortoise or turtle live longer
Nothing in life is guaranteed except taxes and death. For tortoises, it’s really only death. Everything else is up for grabs. As a tortoise or turtle-keeper, it’s your job to be sure your precious reptiles have the perfect life with the best of everything. They will reward you with a lifelong companion that won’t judge how long it takes you to finish preparing your taxes every year.
The best way to help your tortoise live a long life is to make sure you only feed it plant matter. Tortoises are herbivores. There are a few species that have been known to take a curious nibble of insect, but the safest course of action for tortoises is to keep it all veggies all the time. Fruits can be added for a treat, but those can cause obesity, so add those in moderation. We covered this in much greater detail, so hop over to that article for a great resource on feeding torts.
Turtles can be more complicated. Some are herbivores, some carnivores, and some like a little of everything—well, except dairy. They’re lactose intolerant.
The key to feeding tortoises and turtles is to be certain of their species. Each species will have very specific needs. A generic diet might work for a few years, but that would be like you living solely on chef salads, or worse yet, only fast food cheeseburgers and soda. It might keep you alive, but there isn’t enough variety in those foods to sustain you in top condition for long.
Would you like to sit in a puddle of your own filth all day? We wouldn’t, and your tortoises and turtles don’t want to either. It may seem like they don’t really care—many will tromp right through their own droppings for funsies. However, it’s not healthy for them to do this on a daily basis.
Leaving old food, droppings, urates, and general “turtle sludge” in the enclosure is a sure way to invite dangerous bacteria to take up residence. Once a tortoise or turtle has salmonella on their skin, shells, or in their enclosures, it’s pretty much impossible to get rid of. That doesn’t mean you should stop cleaning though. It’s now your job to make sure those bacteria—salmonella or otherwise—don’t spread around the house or to your friends.
Clean your turtle’s tank and your tortoise’s enclosures often. If you can smell it, you waited too long. We suggest weekly spot cleaning at the very least. More often if you’d really like to make sure your little friends are clean and healthy.
We’re not saying that tortoises and turtles are weenies, but they can be scared easily. Being frightened is stressful, and tortoises are notoriously bad at handling stress. Turtles are only slightly better at it. Best to just keep scary stuff and stress to a minimum.
Stressed tortoises and turtles will hide a lot. They will stay in their shells. They will spend little to no time with the neck out relaxed pose. They may even stop eating.
Sunshine, air (and love)
We know this sounds kind of like tree-hugger talk, but bear with us. Tortoises and turtles need sunshine. Like humans, they need sunlight to help their bodies create vitamin D. They require either natural sunlight or a sunlamp in their enclosure that they can bask under. In addition to providing vitamin D, it’s just really darn relaxing to lounge around in the sun.
Fresh air is good for tortoises and turtles. Sitting in your own mucky, murky, swampy enclosure day in and day out will get old very fast. The air will become stagnant and unappealing, leading to depression and stress. Yes, tortoises and turtles can get depressed! Fresh air brings something new and exciting (but not too exciting) to your tort’s life.
And, of course, love. We’re not advocating kissing your tortoise or turtle. In fact, don’t do that. Ever. But we want to see more people spending time and showing affection to their reptile pals. Even though tortoises and turtles don’t speak the same language as humans, they can understand your tone of voice and your caring touch. The longer they’ve known you, the more they’ll understand when you give them a loving, gentle shell rub.
Even better, learn the language of your pet! We covered this in another article, so we highly recommend checking that out. Pay special attention to the tortoise nose boop. That’s some next level adorableness right there.
We can tell you all day what to do specifically to help ensure your tortoise has a long and happy life. However, it’s up to you to truly understand their needs. Educate yourself not just on basic tortoise or turtle care, but the specific things your species needs. Every species wants and needs different things, so the more you know about yours, the better.
What can decrease a turtle or tortoise lifespan?
Pretty much the same things that can kill you can kill your tortoise. The slowest and maybe saddest death of all is from starvation or malnutrition. This slow and arduous wasting away can be painful and stressful. Stay on top of your tort’s or turtle’s diet!
Injury is the next biggest killer of tortoises and turtles. Sadly, injuries often come from grotesque mishandling. These animals do not enjoy being picked up, so please avoid doing this as much as possible. Often, they’re dropped when they accidentally scratch a young child. Just don’t let little kids handle your tortoise or turtle!
Another big killer is disease and illness. These often come from bad sanitation, poor food choices, and lack of proper ventilation. Illnesses can also come from infected bedding, decorations, or even on your hands. This can all be prevented with proper sanitation practices.
Other pets are another way turtles and tortoises might have a shorter lifespan. This could go under many headings, but we gave it its own. See, other pets can cause injuries, like biting through a shell. They can carry parasites and diseases. They can contaminate your turtle or tortoise’s food and water. They can even scare your torts to death. Keep other pets away from your turtle tank or tortoise enclosure.
Caring for your pet tortoise or turtle if you die
Very few people want to talk about death, but it’s a fact of life. Someday, you will die. If you’ve been following our advice on this site and continuing your education in tortoise and turtle care, chances are pretty good that your tanky friends are going to outlive you. The best thing you can do for them is to plan for their care after your death.
This means writing them into your will. You need to decide who will take them when you die. More than that, you should also provide a small financial incentive to whoever is left in charge. This will go toward feeding and vet care, but could also be a thank you gift for the person who agreed to keep your pets after you pass.
What a blessing from Mother Nature to have the opportunity to live with your best friend your entire life! Don’t waste that gift. Take measures right now to help ensure your tortoise or turtle has the very best life possible.