Red-foot Tortoise

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Species group:

Other common names: Red-footed Tortoise; Cherry Head Tortoise; Cherry Head Red-footed Tortoise

Scientific name: Chelonoidis carbonaria

The Basics:
With its beautiful coloration, inquisitive demeanor and ready acceptance of human companionship, it’s small wonder that the Red-footed Tortoise is a much favored pet both within its natural range and throughout the reptile-keeping world. In fact, owners with suitable room and a bit of tortoise experience invariably rank the Red-Foot as more of a companion than pet!

The Red-foot Tortoise is found from eastern Columbia, Venezuela and the Guianas south through eastern Brazil to northern Paraguay. An isolated population lives west of the Andes Mountains, in southeastern Panama and Columbia’s Choco region, and feral animals are established on St. Croix and other Caribbean islands.

Red-foots are most common in humid forests, but may also be found in damp, brushy savannas.

Appearance / Health:
The carapace, domed and noticeably elongated, is black in color and sports yellow to reddish markings along the top and lower border. The head and limbs are attractively-clad in red, yellow or orange. Adults measure 11-15 inches in length, but may approach 20 inches.

Pet Red-foot Tortoises may, with proper care, exceed 50 years of age. Metabolic bone disease is common in animals that are not provided with ample calcium and/or UVB exposure. Females without access to a suitable nesting site may retain their eggs. The lack of a moist retreat may cause irregular shell formation, usually in the form of lumps, among hatchlings. Other ailments to be aware of include swollen eyes (Vitamin A deficiency), overgrown beaks, respiratory infections brought on by sub-optimal temperatures, and obesity.

Behavior / Temperament:
Red-foot Tortoises become most responsive, and quickly learn to “beg’ for food and even to follow their owners about. Like most turtles, they dislike being handled and carried.

Red-foot Tortoises are very active and need spacious enclosures. Glass aquariums are unsuitable. Adults do best in custom-made enclosures measuring at least 5 x 4 feet, but preferably larger; outdoor maintenance is ideal. Plastic-based rabbit cages, large plastic storage boxes, and cattle troughs can also be modified as turtle homes. Water for drinking and soaking should always be available. Youngsters fare poorly unless kept at a humidity level of 60-70%, and provided with a moist retreat. Adults are more resilient, but should also have moist areas in which to shelter.

A 6-8 inch deep layer of cypress mulch is the best substrate. Hollow logs and other caves should also be provided.

Exposure to UVB light is essential. Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances than do florescent models, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well. Temperatures should range from 70-80 F, with a basking site of 95 F. Provide your pet with the largest home possible, so that a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) can be established. Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow turtles to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas.

Females, youngsters and even males may co-exist, but must be watched as dominance hierarchies develop.

Red-foot Tortoises consume fruits, foliage, invertebrates and carrion in the wild. Pets should be offered a wide variety of seasonally available greens and fruits, including kale, mustard/collard greens, dandelion, pears, apples, peaches and others. Avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce, and use bok-choy sparingly. Small amounts of yam and carrot can be provided once weekly. Commercial rainforest tortoise diets may be added to your pet’s salad, but should not comprise more than 25% of their food intake. Earthworms, roaches, locusts and other invertebrates and occasional pre-killed pink mice should be used to supplement the protein found in commercial tortoise chows.

Most meals provided to growing animals should be powdered with a calcium source. Vitamin/mineral supplements should be used 2-3 times each week. Both can be reduced to once weekly for well-nourished adults. A calcium block or cuttlebone may be left in the terrarium for “as needed” use (not all individuals will consume calcium in this form).

Mature males may be distinguished from females by their longer, thicker tails and concave plastrons. Breeding usually occurs without the need for temperature manipulation. Pairs must be watched closely, as males may injure non-receptive females.

Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. If the home enclosure is not suitable for nesting, they should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 8-10 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis). It is important to note that females may develop eggs even if unmated, and may produce 2-3 clutches each year; a single mating may result in fertile clutches years later. The 1-18 eggs may be incubated in a mix of 1 part vermiculite to 1 part water (by weight) at 84-90 F for 60-90 days. Males are produced at low incubation temperatures and females at high; 86 F generally yields both sexes.

Written by Frank Indiviglio

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