South American forest tortoises (Chelonoidis)

Chelonoidis means ‘son of the turtle’, or ‘like the turtle’. There are actually several other members of the genus, but this article focuses on the omnivorous or forest species. The others are several species and/or sub-species of Galapagos tortoises (C. nigra), the Chaco (C. chilensis) and Peter’s tortoise (C. petersi, which many consider a sub-species or just a form of C. chilensis).

The two forest forms are readily taken as meat, and there is significant loss of habitat and over-collection for the pet trade, but thankfully the range is large enough and the species are prolific enough that it is not thought to be in any danger at the moment. One thing in its favor is that local ‘tortoise farms’ can provide enough semi-captive-hatched babies for the pet trade and take that pressure off the local populations.

They do not brumate*, but may aestivate in hot or dry weather, especially south of the Amazon basin. See the section on Red-footed Natural History for more on these species. (Paull, 1997, feels that the southernmost groups may brumate in cold seasons, at least for a while.)

The entire list of species and sub-species include (Forest/omnivorous species underlined):

  • Genus: Chelonoidis(or Geochelone)
    – South American Tortoises (Fitzinger, 1835)

    • C. carbonaria,
      Red-Footed Tortoise
      (Spix, 1824) S. America, 14in/36cm, forest

      • May have up
        to 5 sub-species or
        species- such as Northern, Northeastern, Northwestern, Southern and

    • C. chilensis,
      Pampas or Chilean Tortoise (Gray, 1870) S. America, 10in/26cm, grassland

    • C. denticulata,
      Yellow-Footed Tortoise
      (Linnaeus, 1766) S. America, 16in/40cm, forest

    • C. nigra,
      Galápagos Giant Tortoise complex (Quoy & Gaimard, 1824) S.
      America, 48in/122cm, grassland, endangered unless
      otherwise noted.
      Exact status of species or sub-species is debatable.
      • C. n. nigra,
        Charles Island Giant Tortoise, possibly extinct

      • C. abingdonii.
        Abingdon Island Giant Tortoise (Gunther, 1877) considered extinct as of 6-24-2012

      • C. becki, Vulcan
        Wolf Giant Tortoise (Rothschild 1901)

      • C. chathamensis,
        Chatham Island Giant Tortoise (Van Denburgh, 1907)

      • C. darwini, James
        Island Giant Tortoise (Van Denburgh, 1907)
      • C. duncanensis,
        Duncan Island Giant Tortoise (Garman in Pritchard, 1996), critically endangered

      • C. hoodensis, Hood
        Island Giant Tortoise (Van Denburgh, 1907) critically endangered
      • C. phantastica,
        Narborough Island Giant Tortoise (Van Denborough, 1907), probably extinct

      • C. porter,
        Indefatigable Island Giant Tortoise (Rothschild, 1903)

      • C. vincina, Isabela
        Island Giant Tortoise (Gunther, 1875)
    • C. petersi, Peter’s Tortoise (Freiberg, 1973), S. America, 10in/36cm, grassland. Not considered a species by all sources. (Care is similar to Chaco tortoises, above)

Red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria)
called ‘red-foot’, red-legged’, ‘savanna tortoise’, etc. Several
distinctive regional variations that may be separate subspecies or even
true species. Especially brightly colored animals from southeastern
Brazil are often called ‘cherry-heads’.
Yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata)

called ‘yellow-foot’, yellow-legged’, ‘forest tortoise’, or the South
American or Brazilian ‘giant tortoise’. Local names are generally similar
to the red-footed tortoise.

to 12-14 inches long in about ten years. Mostly dark carapace with light
patches. Dark head and limbs with colorful scales ranging from brilliant
red to pale yellow. Shows lots of individual and regional variation.

to 14″ to 20+ inches in about ten years. Mostly brown to dark coffee carapace
with light patches. Dark head and limbs with scales in some shade of
yellow to yellow-orange.The growth rings on the scutes are generally smoother than the red-footed. The plastron is dark with paler centers to the scutes.

For more on telling these apart, go to ‘Natural History’ or this article at

Range and habitat
of northern half of South America. Panama and Colombia to French Guiana, down to Paraguay and  Bolivia. Typical habitats include grasslands,
open forests, and rain forests (although they are usually found on
forest edges or openings there).

South America Amazon River drainage basin, Venezuela to French Guiana to Brazil and Bolivia. Most often found in full rain forest habitat, they can also be found in wet savannah and other areas with water and humidity. In parts of their range they retreat to higher ground as the seasonal floods come in.

There are many areas where red- and yellow-footed ranges overlap, but they are rarely found in the same micro-habitats in those areas- yellow-footeds preferring the wetter, shadier areas and red-footeds taking the somewhat drier areas usually on the edges or openings. It is generally assumed that the red-footed is more adaptable since it is found in the wider variety of locations and the yellow-foot has a much more restricted selection. Both species are strong swimmers, with yellow-footeds often found soaking in water.

Mating season usually starts
just before the rainy season (March to June) but varies regionally. It
is unclear if yellow-footeds have a distinct season or not. Red- and
yellow-footeds court by sniffing the cloacal region and doing
species-specific head movements- up and down bobbing for red-footeds
(although they do not always bother) and side to side movements for
yellow-foots. A willing female responds with similar motions and female
yellow-footeds also release a strong scent. Similar motions are also
used to determine dominance between males. Head and leg coloration plays
an important role in how the red-footeds select a mate. Ramming,
chasing, and biting are also often involved, especially with the rather
aggressive yellow-foots and Eastern red-foots. Both species vocalize
with red-foots clucking like a chicken. 
red-foots will lay 5-15 elongated eggs about 2 inches long from July to
September, and often have a second o even third clutch later in the
year. Southern and eastern red-footeds do not seem to follow as strict
of a schedule. Red-footeds usually dig a hole to lay the eggs in- not
always an easy job in packed soil. Like many other species, they urinate
to help soften the soil while digging. Yellow-footeds most often use
piles of leaf litter, but sometimes dig, use half digging and half
litter, or just leave the eggs on the surface. A typical yellow-foot
clutch is 3-10 eggs that are more spherical and a bit larger than
For more information, see the articles on nesting and incubation and neonatal care.

Indoor housing
for as much space as possible. 20 gallon tanks or tubs are the minimum
for very young tortoises. 40 gallon tubs or tanks are OK for up to about
6″ long. 8’x4′ is suggested minimum for adults. Habitat should be
waterproof and secure. Hides and shelters are necessary. Live, ‘baby
safe’ plants are helpful but may be eaten or knocked over. Some simple
substrates are cypress or other hardwood mulch, or ‘Orchid Bark’
(high-grade Douglas fir bark). (Indoor Housing)
Outdoor housing 
Outdoor pens
should be spacious, secure from escapes and predators (or theft), and
well-planted with things they can eat and plants they can hide
under. Fresh water and hides are also needed. If nights are below 60-
65F, there should be a heated shelter. If the days are hot and/or
dry, there should be a misting or sprinkler system available. (Outdoor Housing)
Warm, humid climate with plenty of shade. Yellow-footeds generally are less tolerant of hot or cold, need higher humidity overall, and tend to not like much light.
  • 80-85F preferred range. Can tolerate 65-70F lows short term and does not do well over about 90F. red-footeds are more tolerant of a wider range of temps than yellows. (Heating)
  • Needs
    high humidity (80-100%) when young red-footeds can tolerate less humidity as they get older but yellows need it all the time.  (Humidity)
  • Gentle lighting with low-levels of UVB lighting are
    recommended. (Tortoises with regular access to unfiltered sunlight do
    not need UVB lighting.) (Lighting)
A wide, shallow, easy-to-clean bowl of fresh water should always be provided. The bowl rim should be level with the substrate.
greens and plant matter, some vegetables and fruits, small amounts of
protein. Prepared tortoise chows may be used instead or along with fresh
foods. (Diet Overview, Omnivorous Diet)
  • Plant materials can be most lettuces, greens,
    flowers, mushrooms, hays, grasses, leaves or flowers of edible plants
    such as hibiscus, and leaves of fruit trees such as mulberry. Avoid
    using only a few items over and over, especially things like spinach,
    cabbage, and Iceberg lettuces. 
  • Vegetables and fruits can
    include shredded carrot, squash, pumpkin, bell pepper, apples,
    kiwifruit, etc. Some very good options are figs and papaya. Keep
    bananas, grapes, and citrus to a minimum. This should only be about 20%
    of the diet or so.
  • Meats should be about 10% or less of the
    diet. Live bugs and worms, snails and slugs, lightly cooked eggs,
    chicken, ‘oily fish’ (salmon, mackerel, etc.), dog or cat food and so
Feed daily. Remove food when it goes bad. One way to help prevent overfeeding is to limit the higher calorie foods (such as fruits and meats) to an amount smaller than the tortoise’s head.
  • These are attractive, personable, and hardy species that generally do well with decent care.
  • In
    general, a smooth shell is a good sign of health, while a bumpy shell
    often indicates some skeletal development issues, probably caused by
    care or diet issues.
  • When choosing a red-footed tortoise- look
    for a smooth shell; dry nose; clear, wet eyes with no signs of tears or
    being sunken; an animal that you know eats well; and one that struggles
    forcibly when picked up. Baby tortoise’s should have a healed-over yolk
    sack scar.
Revised 5-29-2012 (C) Mark Adkins