Tortoises are reptiles of the family Testudinidae of the order Testudines (Latin: tortoise). They are particularly distinguished from other turtles (which includes the order Chelonia) by being exclusively land-dwelling, while many (though not all) other turtle species are at least partly aquatic. Like other turtles, tortoises have a shell to protect from predation and other threats. The shell in tortoises is generally hard, and like other members of the suborder Cryptodira, they retract their necks and heads directly backwards into the shell to protect them.
Tortoises can vary in size with some species, such as the Galápagos giant tortoise, growing to more than 1.2 metres (3.9 ft) in length, whereas others like the Speckled cape tortoise have shells that measure only 6.8 centimetres (2.7 in) long. Several lineages of tortoises have independently evolved very large body sizes in excess of 100 kg, including the Galapagos giant tortoise and the Aldabra giant tortoise. They are usually diurnal animals with tendencies to be crepuscular depending on the ambient temperatures. They are generally reclusive animals. Tortoises are the longest-living land animals in the world, although the longest-living species of tortoise is a matter of debate. Galápagos tortoises are noted to live over 150 years, but an Aldabra giant tortoise named Adwaita may have lived an estimated 255 years. In general, most tortoise species can live 80–150 years.
Tortoises are placid and very slow moving, with an average walking speed of 0.2–0.5 km/h.
Tortoises are found from southern North America to southern South America, around the Mediterranean basin, across Eurasia to Southeast Asia, in sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, and some Pacific islands. They are absent from Australasia. They live in diverse habitats, including deserts, arid grasslands, and scrub to wet evergreen forests, and from sea level to mountains. Most species, however, occupy semiarid habitats.
Many large islands are or were characterized by species of giant tortoises. Part of the reason for this is that tortoises are very good at oceanic dispersal. Despite being unable to swim, tortoises are able to survive long periods adrift at sea because they can survive months without food or fresh water. Tortoises have been known to survive oceanic dispersals of more than 740 km. Once on islands tortoises faced few predators or competitors and could grow to very large sizes and become the dominant large herbivores on many islands due to their low metabolic rate and reduced need for fresh water compared to mammals.
Today there are only two living species of giant tortoises, the Aldabra giant tortoise on Aldabra Atoll and the several species/subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise found on the Galapagos Islands. However, until very recently giant tortoises could be found on nearly every major island group, including the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles (including Cuba and Hispaniola), the Lesser Antilles, the Canary Islands, Malta, the Seychelles, the Mascarene Islands (including Mauritius and Reunion), and Madagascar. Most of these tortoises were wiped out by human arrival. Many of these giant tortoises are not closely related (belonging to different genera such as Megalochelys, Chelonoidis, Centrochelys, Aldabrachelys, Cylindraspis, and Hesperotestudo), but are thought to have independently evolved large body size through convergent evolution. Giant tortoises are notably absent from Australasia and many south Pacific islands, but the distantly related meiolaniid turtles are thought to have filled the same niche. Giant tortoises are also known from the Oligocene-Pliocene of mainland North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, but are all now extinct, which is also attributed to human activity.