South American forest tortoises (Chelonoidis)
Chelonoidismeans “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):
C. n. nigra,
C. petersi, Peter’s Tortoise (Freiberg, 1973), S. America, 10in/36cm, grassland.
Red-footed Tortoise(Chelonoidis carbonaria)
Also 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)
Also 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.
Grows 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.
Grows 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
Most 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).Yellow-footed
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-footed 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-footeds. 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-footeds and Eastern Red-footeds. Both species vocalize
with Red-footeds clucking like a chicken.
Northern Red-footeds will lay 5-15 elongated eggs about 2 inches long from July to September, and often have a second or 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-footed clutch is 3-10 eggs that are more spherical and a bit larger than those of the Red-footed.
Aim 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 pens should be spacious, secure from escapes and predators (or theft), and well-planted with vegetation 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)
A wide, shallow, easy-to-clean bowl of fresh water should always be provided. The bowl rim should be level with the substrate.
Revised 5-29-2012 (C) Mark Adkins