Red Foot and Yellow Foot Tortoise

Natural History

Red Foot Tortoises and Yellow Footed Tortoises are a tropical species found throughout much of South America and the southern most regions of Central America. Typically found in or near lush forests, these tortoises avoid the intense midday heat, and are most active in the morning and late afternoon.

These moderately sized and attractively colored tortoises have long been staples in the American pet trade, and are additionally exploited in their native lands as food and for their shells. Fortunately, in line with the current trend in conservation efforts, most red foot tortoises available to consumers are of captive bred origin.

Yellow and Red footed tortoises are closely related, and to the untrained eye, often look alike. Minor differences in color and head scalation are often the easiest ways to tell the two species apart. There are also minor differences in climates throughout the tortoises' range, with tortoises from northern South America living in wetter conditions than tortoises from the southern areas of South America, which experience somewhat more arid conditions. All tortoises live and thrive in fairly hot and humid areas, and an effort should be made to replicate these conditions in captivity.

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Size and Longevity

Red foots and Yellow foots are medium sized, by tortoise standards, reaching a maximum size of nearly 18 inches in total length, and may weigh as much as 25 pounds. Average sized adults, however, are in the 8 to 12 inch range.

Certain populations of so-called "cherry head" red foots, which typically display more intense red and orange coloration on the head and legs, stay smaller, seldom exceeding 8 inches in length.

While the longevity of wild red foot and yellow foot tortoises is unknown, individuals raised in captivity often live 25 years or more, with life spans of 40 years being an entirely reasonable goal.

Housing

Hatchling and juvenile tortoises can be comfortably housed in any appropriately sized glass terrarium or similar enclosure. Molded plastic cages, such as those manufactured by Vision Herpetological, are ideal, as they are made specifically for reptile use and are superb at maintaining both heat and humidity.

While a 20 gallon terrarium may be suitable for one or two young animals, they will require larger quarters as they begin to grow. Tortoises, in general, are active animals, and should be given as much space as possible. An average sized adult pair should be given a space with a floor area of no less than 6 feet by 2 feet. Larger or multiple animals will require still larger enclosures. Because tortoises are not able to jump or climb the side of tall enough enclosures, tubs such as those made by Waterland are excellent options to provide adequate caging space for your tortoise.

In temperate climates, or during the summer months elsewhere, tortoises 6 inches or larger can be safely housed outdoors, as long as close attention is payed to providing adequate heat, shelter, and humidity.

Heating and Lighting

Red foot and yellow foot tortoises require daytime basking temperatures ranging into the mid to low 90s, with the ambient temperature about 80 degrees or so. A drop in temperature at night is not only acceptable but advisable. However, no red foot or yellow foot should ever be subjected to sustained temperatures below 70 degrees.

A thermal gradient should be provided, despite the enclosure size. This should result in one end of the cage being warmed to the aforementioned daytime basking temperatures (90 or higher), while the remainder of the cage remains slightly cooler. This type of set-up ensures that your animals can select from wide range of temperatures to suit their specific needs at any time.

Heat for these animals can be provided in a number of ways, including standard basking bulbs, nocturnal red bulbs, heating pads, and ceramic heat emitters. If multiple devices are being used to heat larger enclosures, the use of a thermostat is recommended to avoid unhealthy temperature fluctuations. Because the health of these animals is almost entirely dependent on the temperature in their cage, a thermometer is highly recommended and no cage should be without one.

These tortoises should have access to full spectrum lighting for 10 to 12 hours everyday. Animals housed outdoors should receive ample UVB rays from the sun, however those housed indoors, especially babies, will require an artificial light source. Without an artificial source of UVB, tortoises housed indoors can and usually will develop severe metabolic issues, and most do not survive for prolonged periods of time.

Florescent bulbs designed specifically for use with reptiles are recommended. These bulbs emit UVB waves, much like those of the sun, that are required by the tortoise for proper growth and metabolism of calcium. For cages 12" tall or shorter, the ZooMed 5.0 UVB fluorescent tube, while for cages up to 20" tall, a ZooMed 10.0 fluorescent bulb is recommended.

In large enclosures, self-ballasted mercury vapor bulbs such as Powersun bulbs that provide both UVB and intense heat may be used instead of traditional florescent tubes. Mercury vapor bulbs emit almost 3 times as much UVB as a traditional strip light, and provide UVB in a more natural fashion for the tortoise - that is, the bright, white light that is warming them up is also emitting plenty of UVB, just like the sun does.

Substrate and Furnishings

The substrate used for red foot and yellow foot tortoises should be one that promotes adequate humidity and is also easy to clean and allows the animals to burrow. Reptile (orchid) bark is a good choice, as are any of the pulverized coconut husk products. Cypress mulch has proven ideal for many keepers, and is highly recommended.

Your tortoise enclosure may be decorated, but should remain uncluttered. A few shelters are required, and these may be custom built wooden boxes, or commercially available half-logs. In any case, red foots and yellow foots should be provided with a place to seek refuge from the heat and from prying eyes.

Additionally furnishings, such as live and artificial foliage, branches, and rocks may be added at the keeper’s discretion. Again, avoid overcrowding the enclosure, and avoid any decorations that may trap a small tortoise, or items that may be ingested by mistake.

Water and Humidity

Red foots and yellow foots are fond of water, and will soak and drink copiously if provided with a proper receptacle. The water pan should be sturdy, easily cleaned, and large enough for your tortoise to fit in completely. The water should be replaced regularly, and should not be more than neck-deep to prevent accidents. These tropical tortoises are often found soaking in aquatic areas found throughout their habitat, and there are even accounts of some tortoises swimming! This does not mean your tortoise should go for a dip in the family pool, it simply illustrates how much these tortoises enjoy water in their habitat.

These tortoises are found throughout the tropics, and may experience humidity levels as high as 70% during most of the year. In captivity, red foots are highly adaptable to a variety of climates. Nonetheless, an effort to maintain high humidity levels should always be made. Use of damp sphagnum moss can be very useful to aid in adding moisture to the cage. Ideal substrates and mosses are those that allow moisture to evaporate into the air, which keeps humidity high.

Indoor enclosures such as tanks and tubs can be misted several times a day to keep the upper levels of substrate barely damp. Outdoor enclosures should be equipped with misting systems to ensure that the animals do not get too dry in the hotter months.

If you are in doubt as to the actual humidity levels of your enclosures, invest in a quality humidity gauge, available at most reptile specialty stores.

Nutrition

Red foot and yellow foot tortoises, like most tortoises, are primarily herbivores. The majority of their diet should consist of dark leafy greens such as collard greens, mustard greens, beet tops, carrot tops, green and red leaf lettuce, and kale. Variety is key, so do not be afraid to experiment with different types of greens. In the wild, these tortoises are able to eat hundreds of different types of plants, and in captivity variety is one of the key components of successfully keeping these beautiful tortoises. In addition to fresh leafy greens, red foots and yellow foots can and should be offered various hays to add fiber to their diet. Offering hay along with commercially available forest tortoise diets can make up the base of a tortoise's diet, with the greens changing from feeding to feeding.

Fruit may also be offered but should not make up more than 15% of the overall diet. Banana, papaya, kiwi, melon, and figs are all good choices. Avoid citrus and overly watery fruits, as these are not only unappealing, but provide little in the way of nutrition. Caution should be used when feeding fruit, as these tortoises can become rather addicted to them, and will react like spoiled children if not offered the fruit of their choice at every feeding. Feed fruit no more often than once or twice a week, and focus your attention on providing a varied and nutritious diet of greens. When offering fruit, fresh is best, but in winter or when tropical fruits are hard to come by, canned fruit such as canned papaya or various other canned products are excellent options for adding fruit to the diet when fruit is hard to come by.

Red foot and yellow foot tortoises are suspected of eating more animal protein than other tortoise species. With enough supplementation it is possible to feed them a strictly vegetarian diet, but most keepers have far more success with them by occasionally offering animal protein. These foods can consist of specially formulated omnivorous tortoise diet, canned snails, hard boiled egg, meal worms, lean ground turkey, and the occasional pre-killed rodent. Remember, only once or twice a month to provide dietary diversity. Overfeeding of these types of food can be detrimental over time.

Young animals should be offered food either daily or every other day, depending on the amount they consume. Growing tortoises should eat a pile of food nearly as big as they are within a 24 hour period. Older animals should be offered food at least 3 time a week, if not every other day. Uneaten or moldy food should be removed immediately.

All foods should be dusted lightly with a quality calcium/vitamin supplement at every feeding for growing animals, and once or twice a week for adults. Make sure that the calcium supplement you choose contains vitamin D3, as this will largely decease the chances of any metabolic disorders in fast growing tortoises. The formulas and dosage information for these products will vary from one manufacturer to the next, so examine the label and directions carefully before use. If in doubt, consult an experienced reptile veterinarian or a veteran tortoise keeper.

Handling

While red foot tortoises are gentle animals, they do not particularly enjoy being picked up. Instead, limit your interactions to petting, head rubs, and hand feeding. Small animals can be safely held on the palm of the hand, and they seem fairly comfortable with this. However, as adults, they will likely become nervous if lifted off the ground. Many tortoises, especially adults, will defecate or urinate if lifted off the ground for too long, so handle at your own risk!

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