Why (and How) Tortoises & Turtles Live So Long! | Tortoise Owner (2023)

It’s no secret that tortoises and turtles are long-livedcreatures. We’ve all heard stories of the big sulcata tortoises at zoos livingfor decades, even outliving their caretakers. But what does that mean forregular people and their pet tortoises? Will they outlive us? How the heck dotortoises and turtles live so long anyway?

Below, we’ll delve deep into the details of how and whytortoises and turtles have such long lifespans. Knowing this information canhelp you make sure your pet tortoise or pet turtle gets everything they need tofollow you through your whole life. And, of course, we’ll give you some tips onhow 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 turtleor tortoise, but we can give estimates. Pet tortoises are often touted as livingan impressive 50 to 100 years or more. However, scientists believe that evenolder tortoises could be wandering around in the wild.

One specific species they’re fascinated with is theGalapagos tortoise. Since this behemoth tortoise has lived in isolation for solong and their lives are measured in centuries, it’s very difficult to get anaccurate age on them. These are the big fellas they think could have lived 400or more years.

In 2006, a giant tortoise named Adwaitya died at the ripeold age of 255 years. Apparently, this tortoise had been brought to India as agift in the mid-18th century. Considering we’re in the 21stcentury 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 careabout such things, of course.

But what about turtles? Yes, we know, all tortoises aretechnically turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. In this instance, we’retalking about the water-loving turtle branch of that family tree. Some turtles canlive up to 80 years in captivity, but the Turtle Conservation Society says thatit’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 lifethat spans centuries, especially if you consider that humans are lucky to makeit to 100 years themselves. In the grand scheme of things, scientists haven’tbeen tracking turtle and tortoise ages long enough to have accurate records ofthe longest-lived individuals. If we started with a tortoise that hatchedtoday, it could potentially take 3, 4, or 5 generations of scientists to trackuntil its final day.

It’s unlikely that your turtle or tortoise will live quitethat long. Still, even if we estimate a pet tortoise’s lifespan out to 50years, that’s a significant investment of your time, care, and money. Are youready for that?

How do tortoises and turtles live so long?

The short answer is that it’s hardwired into their DNA. Theywere simply built to last. For comparatively short-lived creatures such ashumans, a lifespan of 500 years seems impossible to imagine. What would youeven do for 500 years?

Delayed, extended, and prolonged reproduction

For tortoises and turtles, things move much more slowly thanthey do for people. For one, they grow at an incredibly slow pace. Some don’treach 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 asjust 3 or 4 months, and many insects emerge from their eggs fully grown andready to get busy.

What’s the deal here? How come tortoises and turtles get tolive so long while the rest of us die off after having a few babies?

That’s one reason. Babies. Some species are designed to havelots and lots of babies because they have lots of predators. The more babiesthey have, and the earlier they start, the more likely some will make it toadulthood to continue the genetic line. Other animals spend most of theirenergy on just staying alive. They have fewer predators, or they have ways todefend against predators, which means they don’t need to start having babies soyoung, nor do they need to have so many since they’ll live a long time.

For tortoises and turtles, they’re carrying around someimpressive defenses in the form of their shells. They have an evolutionaryadvantage over animals with fewer or weaker defenses. They know they can live along time and spread their clutches of offspring out over centuries, so they’rereally in no rush.

Some of this has to do with the tortoise and turtle DNA, butsome also has to do with location. Isolated species will have far fewerpredators to worry about.

Location dictates longevity for tortoises and turtles

Perhaps this goes without saying, but where you live canhave a profound effect on how long you live. The same goes for our tort andturtle buddies. Those species living in harsh environments may have ways tocombat the elements, but that will also delay breeding. They may need to waitfor optimal breeding environments to present themselves, including the rightweather, temperature, and moisture.

Species that live in isolation, like the Galapagos tortoiseswe mentioned earlier, will have far fewer predators to worry about. They won’tbe subjected to as much pollution or interference from humans either. Thishelps them live their long, leisurely lives in relative peace, simply waitingfor the next perfect time to breed.

Size matters

While not a hard and fast rule, generally speaking, thebigger an animal is, the longer it can live. In the case of turtles andtortoises, that is certainly true. The longest-lived tortoises tend to be thehuge breeds. Same with turtles. That means, again, it’s unlikely that someone’ssmall pet tortoise or turtle will live for centuries.

But that size also comes from the relative safety of anisolated life, plentiful food, and good environments that encourage growth. Alarge breed turtle kept in terrible, dirty, and bacteria-laden tanks will notgrow as large or live as long as one kept in pristine, large tanks.

Social Ties

Believe it or not, turtles and tortoises are fairly socialcreatures. They each have complex social structures that they follow in thewild. Even though tortoises, for example, are mostly solitary, they do seek outcompanionship, mating, and even the occasional fight.

Tortoises and turtles can both recognize and remember facesof humans, but more impressively, they can recognize subtle changes in smellsand body language from other tortoises and turtles. Their language iscomplicated and we have barely scratched the surface of it, but theseintelligent 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, weweren’t kidding. Part of their longevity comes from their incredibly slowmetabolisms. Plant matter, the tortoise’s main diet, is difficult to digest onits own. Put that plant matter into an already slow-moving reptile and it’sgoing to take a long time to make its way back out.

That works in the tort’s favor. In fact, they use thisultra-slow digestion and metabolism to their advantage. The species that hibernateare especially good at this since they’ll often be sleeping for months at atime and not eating at all.

Tortoise and turtle lifespan: It’s mostly theory anyway

We wish we could give solid, exact answers to the questionof pet tortoise and turtle lifespans, but science hasn’t come that far yet. Inreality, we’re just now starting to understand the very basics of aging ingeneral. Most research is aimed at humans, of course, but the scientists whoare looking into tortoise longevity have come up with the above theories.

Each of the things mentioned here so far has merit, but nonehave been scientifically proven without a doubt. Rather than sticking to oneanswer, however, nature is rarely that simple. More likely, we’ll soon discoverthat tortoises and turtles live so long because of a variety of factors thatinclude evolution, location, and certain strains of DNA.

For now, the best we can do is explain how certain factorscan either increase or decrease a tortoise’s or turtle’s life, and then hopeyou do right by your pets.

How to help your tortoise or turtle live longer

Nothing in life is guaranteed except taxes and death. Fortortoises, it’s really only death. Everything else is up for grabs. As atortoise or turtle-keeper, it’s your job to be sure your precious reptiles havethe perfect life with the best of everything. They will reward you with alifelong companion that won’t judge how long it takes you to finish preparingyour taxes every year.


The best way to help your tortoise live a long life is tomake sure you only feed it plant matter. Tortoises are herbivores. There are afew species that have been known to take a curious nibble of insect, but thesafest 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 inmoderation. We covered this in much greater detail, so hop over to that articlefor a great resource on feeding torts.

Turtles can be more complicated. Some are herbivores, somecarnivores, and some like a little of everything—well, except dairy. They’relactose intolerant.

The key to feeding tortoises and turtles is to be certain oftheir species. Each species will have very specific needs. A generic diet mightwork 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 conditionfor 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 seemlike they don’t really care—many will tromp right through their own droppingsfor 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 dangerousbacteria to take up residence. Once a tortoise or turtle has salmonella ontheir skin, shells, or in their enclosures, it’s pretty much impossible to getrid of. That doesn’t mean you should stop cleaning though. It’s now your job tomake sure those bacteria—salmonella or otherwise—don’t spread around the houseor to your friends.

Clean your turtle’s tank and your tortoise’s enclosuresoften. If you can smell it, you waited too long. We suggest weekly spotcleaning at the very least. More often if you’d really like to make sure yourlittle friends are clean and healthy.

Remove stress

We’re not saying that tortoises and turtles are weenies, butthey can be scared easily. Being frightened is stressful, and tortoises arenotoriously 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 willstay in their shells. They will spend little to no time with the neck outrelaxed pose. They may even stop eating.

Sunshine, air (and love)

We know this sounds kind of like tree-hugger talk, but bearwith us. Tortoises and turtles need sunshine. Like humans, they need sunlightto help their bodies create vitamin D. They require either natural sunlight ora sunlamp in their enclosure that they can bask under. In addition to providingvitamin D, it’s just really darn relaxing to lounge around in the sun.

Fresh air is good for tortoises and turtles. Sitting in yourown 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 newand exciting (but not too exciting) to your tort’s life.

And, of course, love. We’re not advocating kissing yourtortoise or turtle. In fact, don’t do that. Ever. But we want to see morepeople spending time and showing affection to their reptile pals. Even thoughtortoises and turtles don’t speak the same language as humans, they canunderstand your tone of voice and your caring touch. The longer they’ve knownyou, the more they’ll understand when you give them a loving, gentle shell rub.

Even better, learn the language of your pet! We covered thisin another article, so we highly recommend checking that out. Pay specialattention to the tortoise nose boop. That’s some next level adorableness rightthere.

Educate yourself

We can tell you all day what to do specifically to helpensure your tortoise has a long and happy life. However, it’s up to you totruly understand their needs. Educate yourself not just on basic tortoise orturtle care, but the specific things your species needs. Every species wantsand 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 yourtortoise. The slowest and maybe saddest death of all is from starvation ormalnutrition. 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 notenjoy 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 letlittle kids handle your tortoise or turtle!

Another big killer is disease and illness. These often comefrom bad sanitation, poor food choices, and lack of proper ventilation.Illnesses can also come from infected bedding, decorations, or even on yourhands. This can all be prevented with proper sanitation practices.

Other pets are another way turtles and tortoises might havea 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 carryparasites and diseases. They can contaminate your turtle or tortoise’s food andwater. They can even scare your torts to death. Keep other pets away from yourturtle 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 oflife. Someday, you will die. If you’ve been following our advice on this siteand continuing your education in tortoise and turtle care, chances are prettygood that your tanky friends are going to outlive you. The best thing you cando for them is to plan for their care after your death.

This means writing them into your will. You need to decidewho will take them when you die. More than that, you should also provide asmall financial incentive to whoever is left in charge. This will go towardfeeding and vet care, but could also be a thank you gift for the person whoagreed to keep your pets after you pass.


What a blessing from Mother Nature to have the opportunityto live with your best friend your entire life! Don’t waste that gift. Takemeasures right now to help ensure your tortoise or turtle has the very bestlife possible.

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