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):
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
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 Chelonia.org
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).
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
Revised 5-29-2012 (C) Mark Adkins