In 1984, the Blue Ribbon Pet Farm in Miami received a shipment of 3500 unusually colored Red-footeds from South America, along with a large batch of Chaco Tortoises (Chelonoidis chilensis). The brilliant red colors were so remarkable that Scott Hearsey listed them as “Cherry-head Red-foots” on the next price list.
“Cherry-head” was just a way to describe the distinctive colors of the batch. They had no way of knowing that these animals would turn out to be such a phenomenon!
While “cherry-head” is a commonly used name, we will call them Eastern or Brazilian Red-footeds in recognition of both their primary range and the not-so-minor detail that not all of them have bright red heads. See “Red-footed- Natural History“ for more information about other types of Red-footeds.
Most of the information on this page, other than description, probably
applies to the Southern or Gran Chaco Red-footed Tortoises as well.
Eastern Red-footed Tortoises are a bit of a mystery. No one seems to know the exact range or preferred habitat, whether it is a subspecies or a different species or just a local variant, etc. Most Easterns are distinctively red but some can also look a lot like a “normal” Northern group Red-footed with yellow markings. Some tortoise farms in the region call them “Yellow Red-footeds” and “Red Red-footeds”, apparently to differentiate between the color morphs, or subspecies, or whatever they are.
Tortoises marked as “cherry-heads” often cost more because dealers learned a long time ago that any unusual color variation in a reptile makes it more desirable, and people will pay more for that. This has also led to a lot of other marketing hype, like calling them “dwarf”‘, or calling a colorful Northern Red-footed a “Cherry-head” and so on. Buyers beware!
Before you pay more for a tortoise claimed to be a”‘cherry-head” or a “dwarf”, do your homework! While Easterns are generally smaller overall than Northerns, they are not “dwarf” versions of Northerns, they’re just a smaller race.
Easterns are a good choice for the keeper since they seem to be a bit smaller and hardier than the more common Northern group. The fact that they are prettier as well is just a nice bonus!
Description and Gender Differences
The things that make an Eastern different from a typical Northeastern Red-footed include:
- A mostly dark plastron, which often lacks a defined pattern.
- The carapace is more likely to show mottling (white spaces developing between
scutes as they grow) than Northerns.
- An enlarged, colorful, scale on the inside of the front “elbows”.
- The nose is usually brightly colored and slightly bulbous compared to a Northern. This is the “Rudolph Sign”.
- The scales on the head and legs are the same color: brick red to a cherry red, oranges, some yellows, even pinkish on occasion. There are often not as many colored scales as on Northerns.
- Typical sizes are 23cm/9in for males, 25cm/10in for females compared to about 30cm/12in for Northeasterns, although “giant” individuals over 35cm/14in are often found.
Different groups of Red-footeds have distinctive shell shapes. Brazilians are often described as “egg-shaped”, compared to others which are “loaf” or “bowl” shaped, although there is a lot of variation in this group.
Comparing the plastrons- Northern on the left, Brazilian on the right (Allegra Fung)
Elbow spur and bulbous nose (Allegra Fung)
Elbow spur (Mark Adkins)
Northern, left, vs Brazilian, right (Allegra Fung)
Gender differences can include:
- Adult male Easterns do not show the “wasp waist” shell constriction, and often do not have as deep of a plastron indentation.
- Some adult males show a flaring of the rear marginals.
- Large female Easterns often develop a bit of a “bump” on the last vertebral scute, giving the shell a bit of a pointy look.
- They appear to reach maturity earlier and at a smaller size than Northeasterns: 15cm/6in and about 4-6 years old, compared to 20cm/8in and 6-8 years old.
- Females do not generally lay eggs until about 24cm/9.5in.
- Male Easterns are generally smaller than same-age females, unlike Northeasterns.
- For unknown reasons, some female Easterns in captivity develop male-like features: longer tails, indented plastrons, and wide anal scute angles. These females generally do not reproduce well.
Imagine if you will a scene out of any Western you’ve ever watched. Rocky hillsides spotted with brush and cacti, lush valleys of greener vegetation and creeks, plains of dry grass and thorny scrub rustling in the breeze in between the two, birds of prey floating high overhead… The greener areas in this scenario would be a common type locality of the Southern and Eastern Red-footed. Because we do not know their exact range, we do not know every biome and ecosystem they come from, but scrub savannas are probably pretty typical.
Easterns seem to come from the central-eastern part of Brazil- Bahia (near towns like Lencois and Baiaxa Grande), and possibly Goias, Mato Grosso, etc. The area’s climate is more variable than Northern South America. The coast is moderated by ocean currents, while the climate varies more inland. There are drier highlands and green lowlands, swamps and near-desert scrubs. If they are like other Southern Red-footeds, then they seek out the greener lowlands and valleys which are not exactly as lush as the rain forest or thick grassy wet savanna of the Northeastern Red-footeds.
One of the mainstay foods in the region are Opuntia-like cacti. Southern Red-footeds freely eat the fruits and pads, seemingly unhurt by the thorns piercing their cheeks, and Easterns probably do as well. They probably eat a lower percentage of fruit overall than their forest-dwelling cousins since they experience a less extreme growing and fruiting season.
Southern Red-footeds have been observed aestivating during hot, dry weather and probably aestivate or maybe even brumate during cold spells as well. Again, Easterns probably act much the same as they are known in captivity to be more comfortable in cooler weather than other types. While Northeastern Red-footeds generally use debris piles, fallen trees, etc. as hides, Southerns seem to show a preference for burrows made by giant armadillos (Priodontes maximus) as they dig for insects. The decline in the giant armadillo is thought to be one reason for the overall decline in Red-footeds in some areas.
Observations by many keepers include:
- “Downtimes”: Many keepers have observed that their Easterns slow down in the winter for several weeks.
They are less active and eat less even when kept at the usual temps and humidity. There is not a strong consensus as to whether we should fight this with higher temps or something, leave them alone, or actually cool things off a bit to allow them to go into some form of dormancy. Most keepers just let them ride through this.
- Cacti are probably a preferred food in the wild, and they seem to like it in captivity.
- Adult males are known to fight in many situations. Keep adult males separated, or in a very large habitat with lots of obstacles so each can have a territory and not see the others.
- Some people want to know how to make the colors brighter. While nothing is proven to work, foods rich in beta carotene affect the colors of many other animals. It can be found in orange and dark green plants: carrots, yellow squash, yams, collards, spinach and kale. Natural sunlight also affects color but not in a predictable way.
- They do not seem to drink as much as other Red-footeds, but water should always be available.
- They tend to be active at cooler temps than other Red-footeds as long as it is sunny, but may hide during cloudy periods.
- While other Red-footeds generally begin to nest in late August/early September and produce additional clutches roughly every month for 3-4 months, Brazilians do not seem to start at as regular a time, or have such regular intervals between clutches.
- They are more tolerant of temperature and humidity extremes, but young tortoises should be kept warm and humid like other Red-footeds.
Carl May- Brazilian ‘cherry-head’
- Guix, Juan Carlos, Daniel L. Fedullo and Flavio B. Molina. “Masculinization of captive females of Chelonoidis carbonaria (Testudinidae)” Rev. Esp. Herp. #15, 2001.
- May, Carl D. “The Care and Breeding or the Red-headed or ‘Cherryhead’ Red Foot Tortoise”, Radiata, 2004
- May, Carl D. personal communications
- Paull, Richard C. The Great Red-Foot Tortoise (Tortoises of the World, Vol. 4). Green Nature Books, 1999.ISBN 188808927X.
- Tortoise Forum, personal communications
- Vargas-Ramirez, Mario and Jerome Maran, Uwe Fritz. “Red- and yellow-footed tortoises, Chelonoidis carbonaria and C. denticulata (Reptilia: Testudines: Testudinidae), in South American savannahs and forests: do their phylogeographies reflect distinct habitats?” Organisms, Diversity and Evolution, 2010.
- Vinke, Thomas and Sabine Vinke. “The Turtle and Tortoise Fauna of the Central Chaco of Paraguay” Radiata 10:3, 2001.
- Vinke, Thomas and Sabine Vinke. “An Unusual Survival Strategy of the Red-Footed Tortoise Geochelone carbonaria in the Chaco Boreal of Paraguay.” Radiata 12(3) 2003.
- Vinke, Thomas, Sabine Vinke, Holger Vetter and Susane Vetter. South American Tortoises, ‘Chelonoidis Carbonaria, C. Denticulata and C. Chilensis’ (Chelonian Library #3)
, Chelonian Library Vol. 3. Chimera Edition, 2008. ISBN 3899736036.
Revised 6-3-2012. (C) Mark Adkins