‘Cherry-heads’ or Easterns

Carl Mays cherry head

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).
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 phenomena!

A pair of Allegra Fung's 'cherry-heads'

‘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. Note:
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, if 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 ‘dwarfs’, 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
do your homework! While Easterns are generally smaller overall than Northerns, they are not ‘dwarf’ versions of Northerns- just a smaller race.

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

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
    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.

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.

Allegra Fung- plastron comparisons

Comparing the plastrons- Northern on the left, Brazilian on the right (Allegra Fung)

nose and spur
Elbow spur and bulbous nose (Allegra Fung)

Elbow spur  (Mark Adkins)

Northern vs Brazilian

Northern, left, vs Brazilian, right (Allegra Fung)

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,
    female Easterns in captivity develop male-like features- longer
    tails, indented plastrons, and wide anal scute angles. These females
    generally do not reproduce well.

Natural history

if you will a scene out of any Western you’ve ever watched. Rocky
hillsides spotted with brush and cacti, lush valleys of greener
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. 

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- 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,
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

Care considerations

Some 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 additional clutches roughly every month for 3-4 months, Brazilians
    do not seem to start at as regular a time, or have as
    regular intervals between clutches.
  • They
    more tolerant of temperature and humidity extremes, but young
    tortoises should be kept warm and humid like other red-footeds.
Carl May headshot
Carl May- Brazilian ‘cherry-head’


Revised 6-3-2012. (C) Mark Adkins