Natural History Information
Range and Habitat
- This tortoise is native to central and northern South America, from Panama to northern Argentina, and on several Caribbean islands. Preferred habitats include drier forest areas, grasslands, savannas, or rainforest belts adjoining more open habitats.
- Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information
- Red-footed tortoises generally roam during the early morning and evening, when it is cooling, and during the rainy season. During the middle of the day, they will generally seek shade to escape the heat of the midday heat.
- Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles
- Temperature: 85-95 F
- Natural substrates such as wood chips, or soil should be used. It should be a few inches deep to allow for digging.
- Social Housing/Colony Management
- In the wild, breeding begins with the onset of the raining season, although tortoises in captivity will court each other and mate year-round. Perhaps the most unusual thing about their courtship is that the male makes a clucking sound during courtship and mating. The clucks sound amazingly like a hen.
- After breeding, females will lay 5 to 15 eggs between July and September. They generally make their nest by burying the eggs in the ground or by covering the eggs with leaves. Nest excavation, egg laying, and re-covering the nest may take as long as 3 to 4 hours. Eggs are oblong, about 2″ by 1.5″, and have brittle shells.
- Incubation generally lasts for 105 to 202 days (with a mean of 150 days), but could be as long as a full year. Newly hatched hatchlings are round and flat, and are about 1.5″ in diameter.
- Average lifespan is up to 70 years.
- Other General Housing Requirements or Management information
- The largest red-footed tortoise on record is 17.75 inches long. Average length, however, is 13.25 for males and 11.25 for females. They generally weigh 12 to 25 pounds.
- Diet in the Wild
- In the wild, red-footed tortoises eat hibiscus flowers and leaves, papaya, bougainvillea, cactus, aloe vera, and many other naturally occurring Caribbean plans.
- Diet under human care
- Under human care, they are fed omnivore salad.
- South American red-footed tortoises are almost half bone and shell, so they have a great need for calcium. In order to absorb all the calcium they require, calcium levels in their diet must exceed phosphorus levels. Foods that are high in calcium, but low in phosphorus, include dandelion greens, collard greens, parsley, kelp, watercress, celery and orange rind.
- Coprophagy (feeding on its own or another species’ feces) is not uncommon. As is feeding on carrion.
- Environmental Enrichment
- Some individuals may enjoy misting, but be sure to to watch the behavior to see if they are enjoying it or not.
- Behavioral Enrichment
- Spreading mixed greens throughout the tortoise enclosure encourages natural foraging behavior.
- Another nice enrichment which is also pleasant to do in public with visitors around is allowing the tortoise to forage on a grassy area for clover and dandelions
- Behaviors Trained
- Denver Aquarium has trained them to do A-B’s on stage for fruit and cat food reinforcement. Also targets with a tap on the shell bridge.
- Threats and Conservation Status
- Red-footed tortoises are protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that this species may not be exported from its home country without a permit. Appendix II animals are not classified as threatened with extinction (i.e., endangered) but are considered sensitive to this danger if international trade is left unregulated. Although protection under CITES has some positive effects on the survive of this species, CITES regulations cannot protect the red-footed tortoise where it is most in danger, within the boundaries of its home countries.
- In every country in its range, the biggest threat to the survive of red-footed tortoises is overhunting by humans. Red-footed tortoises are hunted extensively in their countries of origin for food. Interestingly, tortoises are considered “fish” by the Catholic church and during holy week, red-foots are consumed in huge numbers. Red-foots are collected in large numbers and shipped to many different South American cities to be sold as a delicacy. The fact that red-foots can tolerate long periods of time without food or water, an otherwise evolutionary advantage, makes this species both easy and profitable to transport.
- Other threats include habitat loss and disturbance.
- One of the best ways for people to help the rainforest is to reduce their use of tropical woods. Many rainforest trees are felled each year for lumber, furniture, and other products that end up in countries all over the world. Much of tropical wood imported into the United States comes from South America, particularly the Amazon Rainforest. Flooring, musical instruments, picture frames and other products made of rosewood should be particularly avoided to slow deforestation on Madagascar and to avoid the extinction of endangered or vulnerable rosewood tree species from forests all around the equator. Ask guests to consider used or vintage furniture or new furniture made of wood that has been reclaimed from old structures. There are many alternatives to conventional lumber including flooring and other products made from fast-growing bamboo, and decking made of recycled plastic formed to look like wooden boards
- One of the best ways for people to help the rainforest is to reduce their use of paper. Many rainforest trees are felled each year for paper that ends up in countries all over the world. Much of the tropical paper pulp products that end up in the United States come from South America, particularly the Amazon Rainforest. Please ask guests to go paperless in the office whenever possible, to print on both sides, to recycle any paper or cardboard they do use, and to purchase products made from recycled paper. At home, they can substitute re-usable cloth towels for disposable paper towels and cleaning wipes and purchase toilet paper made from recycled material rather than super-plush toilet paper which is made from old-growth forests.
- Interesting Natural History Information
- Depending on their size, they can be eaten by just about any predator in their region when they’re smaller. As they become larger, predators decrease until they only include humans and wild feline species.
- Did you know…
- Their dark shells have yellow markings in the center of each scute. There are large red scales on the forelimbs, and yellow scales on the head. Males have a concave plastron (bottom shell) and have a lower, flatter, and more pronounced hourglass shape to their carapaces (top shells) than do the females. Males also have longer, thicker tails.
- The red-footed tortoise is highly prized for its meat and harvested in some areas on the Caribbean.
- It is believed that pre-Columbian Indians brought this tortoise with them as a food source as they initially explored the islands.
Handling & Presentation Tips
Public Contact and Interaction Guidelines
- Can be difficult to transport and present, due to a messy/wiggly nature
- Some individuals may go to the bathroom while handling them. Because of this it is always a good idea to let the tortoise walk around while presenting.
- For indoor programs be sure to keep the tortoise on a covered area (newspaper or drop cloth). This helps prevent the spread of bacteria the animal might be carrying.
- For outdoor programs a “kiddie” pool works great as a containment area for the tortoise.
- Seneca Park Zoo: Does not get too big and is very easy to handle.
- Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park: Messy to transport, wiggly
- Brandywine Zoo: During cool weather (under 65°F), supplemental heat is provided with a hot water bottle set to one side of the cooler. Wrap bottle with newspaper for lizards or snakes traveling with the bottle loose, to make cleanups easier in the case of defecation while traveling.
- Brandywine Zoo: reptiles travel in a stackable Coleman style cooler that has been amended with extra ventilation holes on the lid (with a wood-burning tool). With box turtles, the cooler is lined with newspaper.
- After looking at other AZA institutions for surplus animals, check with your local herpetological society and reptile rescue organizations. Many of these animals are purchased by the public at reptile stores and expos and owners are unable to keep them for their whole lifespan. If purchasing, look for a reputable breeder to avoid wild caught specimens.
- Check out sample animal policies, handling sheets, and fact sheets on our Example Policies & Guidelines page
- View past issues of Program Animal SAG Newsletters
- Ambassador Animal SAG Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 3: Temperature and Transport: Welfare Implications for Ambassador Ectotherms
- Choice, Control, and Training in Ectotherms, By Carrie Kish
- Stress Management in Reptiles and Frogs
- Check out the Advancing Herpetological Husbandry Facebook group. They have also published several newsletters (see Reptiles page for links).
Contributors and Citations
- Cover photo: REID SNEDDON
- The Philadelphia Zoo
- Notes gathered from completed PARIS rating sheets
- Houston Zoo, Natural Encounters
Comments from the Rating System
- Henry Vilas Zoo: Super friendly; great to teach reptilian attributes and ecosystem roles; people love this species because they can touch it and it is a good size for large groups to see. (The same goes for yellow-footed tortoises.)