In (British) English, marine "turtles" are distinguished from terrestrial "tortoises".1 2

In Spanish, both of these groups of reptiles come under the blanket term tortuga.

Are there any analogous Spanish terms for "tortoise" and "turtle"?

Similar to how though "owl" describes both búho and lechuza in English, there exist the more specific terms "true/typical owl" and "barn owl" respectively.

1. In layman's terms, i.e. not scientific nomenclature.
2. Sometimes freshwater/brackish water turtles are further distinguished as "terrapins".


2 Answers 2


General terms

Turtles, terrapins, and tortoises can be identified respectively by the Spanish terms:

English Spanish
Turtle tortuga marina
tortuga de mar
Terrapin tortuga dulceacuícola
tortuga de agua dulce
Tortoise galápago1 2
tortuga terrestre

Scientific terms

Veering into more zoological terminology, you also have:

1. In Ecuador, galápago refers specifically to the Galápagos giant tortoise, not terrapins.
2. According to Corominas galápago's ultimate etymology possibly comes from a pre-roman hispanic term for any shelled creature/thing, and that it is cognate with calabazo (pumpkin) and carapacho/caparazón (turtle shell).4
3. The similarly named emidosaurio refers to a group of crocodilians (caimans). This similarity comes from its dubbing as a 'terrapin' lizard (for the ossofied scales on its back resembling a terrapin's shell).
4. There is a surprising variety in the names one can give to a turtle's shell (carapace): garapacho, carapacho, caparazón, carroncho (Hond.), concha, coraza, casco, espaldar & peto/plastrón etc


Supplementary answer on regional terms.

Regional terms

The confusion between the British, American and Australian usage of the words turtle/tortoise etc1 2 3 stems from the different fauna encountered in each region. Naturally in Spanish too certain dialects have their own words for different species and groups of species of tortuga.

Many of the following terms, though specifically used for certain species, also serve in the dialects where they are used (via metonymy) as synonyms for any tortuga or any sea-turtle/river-turtle/tortoise:


English Spanish Image
Galápagos tortoise galápago (Ec.) enter image description here
Red-footed tortoise /
Yellow-footed tortoise
morrocoy (Pa, PR, Co, Ve, Ec.)
morrocota (Co.)
morrocoyo (Pa, Co:N)
tequeteque (Ve.)
enter image description here
Red-footed tortoise peta (Bo:E.)
tortuga de tierra (Bo:E.)
enter image description here


English Spanish Image
Terrapin jarico (Cuba)
South American Snapping turtle tortuga mordedora (Ec.) enter image description here
Mata mata jicotea, hicotea (Mx:SE, RD, PR, Co, Ve.) Taino
icotea (Ho, ES, Pa, RD, Co, Ve.)
matamata (Co, Ec, Pe:E.)
enter image description here
D'Orbigny's slider morrocoy, morrocoyo (Ur.) enter image description here
South American River turtle charapa (Co, Ec, Pe)
galápaga (Co:E,S.)
tortuga arrau (Co, Ec.)
tortuga sabanera (Co)
enter image description here
Yellow-spotted river turtle capitari (Pe.)
terecay (Co, Ve.)
taricaya (Co, Ec, Pe.)
tartaruga (Ec, Bo:E.)
tortuga de agua (Bo:E.)
enter image description here

Sea turtles

English Spanish Image
Hawksbill sea turtle carey (Mx, Ho, Cu, RD, PR; f. Pa.) Taino
caray (RD.)
peje colorado (PR.)
enter image description here
Loggerhead sea turtle caguama (Mx, Ho, Ni, Cu, Co, Ve; m. PR, rur; m. Pa.) Caribe
cahuama (Mx.)
[tortuga] camagua (Ho, Ni.) náhuatl camahuac
cabezona (Ni.)
enter image description here
Leatherback sea turtle tora (Ho, Ni.)
laúd (Mx, Ho, Ni, Pa.)
baula (Ho, CR)
tinglado (Cu.)
enter image description here
Green sea turtle jaco (Cu.)
tortuga verde (Ho, PR, Ec.)
carey blanco, peje blanco (PR.)
enter image description here


South American Tortoises


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tortoise#Terminology
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtle#Turtle,_tortoise,_or_terrapin
3. The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins (p.174)

Before going any further, I can't escape a tiresome point of terminology, and a regrettable vindication of George Bernard Shaw's observation that 'England and America are two countries divided by a common language'. In Britain, turtles live in the sea, tortoises live on land and terrapins live in fresh or brackish water. In America all these animals are 'turtles, whether they live on land or in water. 'Land turtle' sounds odd to me, but not to an American, for whom tortoises are the subset of turtles that live on land. Some Americans use 'tortoise' in a strict taxonomic sense to refer to the Testudinidae, which is the scientific name for modern land tortoises. In Britain, we'd be inclined to call any land-dwelling chelonian a tortoise, whether it is a member of the Testudinidae or not (as we shall see, there are fossil 'tortoises' that lived on land but are not members of the Testudinidae). In what follows, I'll try to avoid confusion, making allowance for readers in Britain and America (and Australia, where the usage is different again), but it's hard. The terminology is a mess, to put it mildly. Zoologists use 'chelonians' for all these animals, turtles, tortoises and terrapins, whichever version of English we speak.

As you can see from this diagram (p.177), aquatic chelonians ("turtles") is not monocladistic:

enter image description here


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