The Red Foot Tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria, previously Geochelone) is a large South American tortoise with an attractive brown, black, orange, cream and red shell, with red markings on the feet and face. This species requires different care to the Mediterranean species, requiring higher temperatures, humidity and not hibernating. They are low maintenance to care for, but you do need to have the correct environment and plenty of space.

With research and proper setup, this is a species that thrives in captivity. Reading this entire care guide – including housing for your Red Foot Tortoise, heating, lighting, substrate and decor, the possibility of keeping the outside and more – will prepare you and help you make the decision on whether this is the right pet for you.

Meet the Red Foot Tortoise

Red Foot Tortoises are native to various climates in Central and South America. They cover large habitats, from wet forests to dryer grasslands. Hatchling Red Foot Tortoises will measure approximately 1.5 to 2″ and over 10 years or so they will grow to 10 to 16″, (with the average at 11 to 12″) making them larger than most of the popular Mediterranean Tortoises. They can weigh up to 30 lbs.

Red Foot Tortoises are a CITES Annex B species, so does not require an Article 10 CITES certificate or a microchip to be legally sold.

Red Foot Tortoises live for more than 50 years. This is constantly being evaluated for captivity so the potential is they can live for longer. This is a species that often gets preyed on in the wild, so their wild lifespan is much shorter than captivity. In captivity we are now making massive advancements in husbandry that did not exist 20-30 years ago, which is why the captive lifespan is trending upwards. It’s certainly a big time commitment that should be carefully considered.

Indoor Housing for Red Foot Tortoises

Due to the temperature and humidity requirements, we do not recommend keeping Red Foot Tortoises in an open topped table as we do with Mediterranean species. A glass tank does not offer enough ventilation or size, so we recommend a large wooden vivarium. Red Foot Tortoises come from the rainforest floor, which has a lot of stagnant rain and little breeze, so they do not need the additional ventilation Mediterranean species do. Due to their size and activity levels we recommend a 4 x 2 x 2 enclosure for juveniles, but you’ll need to consider adult size. A 6 x 2 x 2 allows an adult space to roam throughout the winter, whilst you may want to consider outdoor options as well, which I’ll cover in the next section.

We sell a complete setup for Red Foot Tortoise hatchlings which includes the heating and lighting covered below.

Housing Red Foot Tortoise Outdoors in the UK

Housing Red Foot Tortoises outdoors in the UK can be very challenging due to our temperatures. Juvenile Red Foot Tortoises should be kept indoors at carefully monitored temperatures, but once they are well established, perhaps three to four years old, some form of outdoor enclosure can be beneficial.

The UK has a mild climate, but it is far colder than the temperatures these Red Foot Tortoises are used to getting in South America. The simplest option is to keep your Red Foot Tortoise indoors the majority of the time, but put them in a secure enclosure in the garden for a few hours a day in the summer for exercise, fresh air, natural UVB and the stimulus of being outside.

If you do decide to try to house your adult Red Foot Tortoises outside you will still need a secure indoor heated area in your garden that your tortoise can bask in when needed, and sleep in at night, for example a shed or greenhouse with a ceramic basking bulb creating a basking spot. Some people use portable or permanent radiators or heaters to heat an entire shed, garage or outbuilding.

Any outdoor enclosure should be carefully protected from predators, especially for young hatchlings. The UK has birds, foxes, rats, as well as cats and dogs, all of which can damage a tortoise seriously. We recommend a fenced off area with a foundation (this species can dig deeply!) in the garden rather than free roaming. This will stop them eating anything they shouldn’t, or digging up any flower beds.

Red Foot Tortoise Heating and Temperature

Red Foot Tortoises need temperatures of 28 – 34C (82 – 93F) on the hot end and can drop down to 20 – 24C (68 – 75F) on the cool end, which also serves as a general night time temperature. We recommend using a Ceramic Heating Bulb as your 24 hour heating source and just using UVB as your light source. This should always be controlled by a thermostat and should be at least 10″ away from the tortoises basking spot. Heat mats aren’t as suitable for heating large enclosures, but if you did use one, it would need to go on the back of the tank as it wouldn’t penetrate well under the substrate and you wouldn’t want your tortoise to dig down and sit directly on top of it either.

The reason we don’t recommend a basking bulb is that Red Foot Tortoises don’t bask in the wild. Sunlight penetrates thinly through the dense rainforest canopy, and too much light or too much heat can actually cause these tortoises to spend their day hiding.

Your Ceramic Bulb should be controlled by a thermostat. Ceramic heating guards are available, but since a Red Foot Tortoise can’t climb or jump at the bulb, aren’t essential but some people may still want to use one.

Keep a thermometer in the vivarium at all times, ideally two, one on the hot and one on the cold side – digital ones are best – to ensure the temperature is correct.

Humidity, Water and Bathing

Red Foot Tortoises need a humidity of around 70-80%. They can dehydrate quickly so it’s important to meet this with a substrate the holds humidity well, a shallow water bowl and twice daily misting.

You should always have fresh water available in the enclosure for drinking.

In the wild Red Foot Tortoises would treat into a burrow which would be cooler and have higher humidity. This should be simulated in captivity with a humid hide or burrow. We recommend cork bark as a great way to create hides at different levels. You can dig down into the substrate and create a lower level for a humid hide.

You should bathe your tortoise in a shallow, warm bath approximately 3-5 times a week for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. This shouldn’t go past their chin and should be in a container or tub where they don’t slip or feel unsteady – you can put a piece of slate or similar at the bottom of a plastic tub to ensure it’s not slippery.

UVB for Red Foot Tortoises

UVB is essential for Red Foot Tortoises to synthesise D3, and ensure good health. We recommend a UVB strip light designed for forest species, on for approximately 10 – 12 hours a day. Red Foot Tortoises are fine with a lower UV Index, and can use a 6% Forest bulb as they live deep within the forest canopy.

We would recommend having a UV Index of 2-3 in your tank. This can be obtained with a 6% T8 UVB at 10-15″ height or at a 15-18″ height you can use a T5 6% UVB or a T8 12% UVB. The Arcadia Pro T5 at 6% strength in 34″ is ideal for a 4x2x2 enclosure or in 46″ length for a 6x2x2 enclosure.

If you’re interested in the differences between T5 and T8 and what it all means, you can read our entire UVB guide here.

Substrate

We recommend a deep layer of substrate that facilitates burrowing and still holds humidity. Orchid Bark is ideal. You can also use a more natural soil type substrate such as Arcadia EarthMix. Some people will use top soil, but make sure that it is chemical and fertilizer free. You could mix top soil with Orchid Bark to give different textures.

Decor

You will need multiple hides – at least one on the hot and one on the cold – side of the enclosure for your Red Foot Tortoise to choose where to hide in. You should try to make at least one dip down into a burrow in the substrate, which will naturally be cooler and damper. You can also add a small amount of sphagnum moss in this hide.

Due to their shape and size there aren’t really specific hides suitable for Red Foot Tortoises, but you can create a suitable hide using Cork Bark or Log Rolls. You may want to add some plastic plants or other decor items to make the enclosure more natural, but generally tortoises prefer things quite uncluttered with plenty of room for exercise.

Adding a slate tile can help with a place to feed, and also provide something that will wear down the nails of your tortoise naturally.

Social Needs

Interestingly, Red Foot Tortoises are one of the few reptile species to live in colonies in the wild. You will often find many Red Foot Tortoises inhabiting the same burrow, for example. Mediterranean Tortoises are famed for being territorial and males are aggressive, but the Red Foot Tortoise is a peaceful species and even males co-exist with each other well, not even fighting during breeding. The more you keep together, the more space you need to provide, and housing more than two or three red foot tortoises together would require something like a heated shed or greenhouse, including full heating throughout the winter due to the size requirements.

We don’t really know much about the social lives of tortoises, but your tortoise will be fine living solo as well. That being said, if you have the space and can get two it might be something worth considering.

Feeding Red Foot Tortoises

Red Foot Tortoises should be offered a daily varied diet that is 70% greens and weeds, and 30% fruits. In addition to this they should have a small amount – just a teaspoon for juveniles and a tablespoon for adults – of protein weekly.

Red Foot Tortoises can overeat, causing uneven shell growth and potential health problems if they become obese. A general guide would be not to feed more greens and fruit (combined) than the size of the shell, per day. As a grazing reptile you can increase natural behaviour and exercise by placing the food in different times and locations around the vivarium rather than serving it up on a platter in the same location every day. This will encourage your tortoise to move throughout the day and forage – but do remember to remove uneaten food at the end of the day. They won’t forage once it’s lights out, and uneaten food can attract bacteria and mould.

Safe to feed weeds and flowers include

Dandelion Leaves and FlowersCloverChickweedRose Petals
ButtercupHibiscusHeatherNasturtium
Sow ThistleHawkbitsBindweedGeranium
PansiesForget-Me-NotFuchsiaPetunia

Good choices of salad, vegetable and leafy greens to feed tortoises include

Collard/Mustard GreensPak ChoiEndive/Escarole LettuceSquash
Arugula, Rocket, Lamb’s LettuceRed and Curly LettuceParsleyBell Peppers
WatercressSproutsCactus pads

Safe fruit to eat in larger quantities include

PapayaFigsMangoCherriesMelon
KiwiPomegranatePineappleStrawberry

Fruit you can offer in smaller quantities include

BlueberriesBlackberriesAppleGrapesBanana
PearPeachPlumApricot

Protein should be offered weekly in small amounts (teaspoon for juveniles up to a tablespoon for adults). 

Boiled EggLow Fat Cat/Dog FoodCooked ChickenTuna, Sardine, HerringShrimp and Shellfish
Defrosted Pinky MiceSlugs and SnailsMealworms

Red Foot Tortoise Food Supplementation

Calcium is an essential part of Red Foot Tortoise diet and helps them remain healthy and ensures good shell growth. You should use a good quality calcium supplement 4-5 times a week, as well as having a source of calcium available in the enclosure, such as a cuttlefish bone or calcium block.

In addition to this, a good quality multi vitamin with D3 supplement should be used 2-3 times a week. So between the two supplements, you will add a supplement to the tortoises feed every day.

Handling Red Foot Tortoises

Tortoises in general aren’t the cuddly type of pet, but you can pick up and handle your Red Foot Tortoise as long as you hold them securely, supporting them underneath. They don’t like to feel unstable, so holding them where all four legs feel supported is a good idea.

Brumation / Hibneration

Red Foot Tortoises, unlike Mediterranean Tortoises, do not brumate. The climate is fairly stable in the wild all year around. As such, falling temperatures will not put your Red Foot Tortoise into a state of hibernation, but will seriously damage them and eventually cause death. You should never attempt to hibernate at Red Foot Tortoise and should keep your temperatures consistent all year around.

Sexing Red Foot Tortoises

Sexing babies is almost impossible but once your tortoise is six to eight inches or larger, you should easily be able to visually distinguish males from females. Male Red Foot Tortoises have a long thick tail, whereas females have a short and stubby tail. The plastron (underside) of the male is concave, and males are smaller in size as well. The size you buy Red Foot Tortoises from breeders or shops is one that’s impossible or hard to sex, as they’re usually sold as yearlings or younger, but due to their peaceful nature, ending up with two males isn’t usually a problem for Red Foot Tortoises.

Breeding Red Foot Tortoises

The wild populations of Red Foot Tortoises are declining due to habitat loss, so it’s important to buy captive bred Red Foot Tortoises and never consider one taken from the wild. Luckily, if you have enough space and the right climate in your enclosure, breeding Red Foot Tortoises in captivity is done readily.

To breed Red Foot Tortoises you will first need a population consisting of both mature females and a male. This requires a lot of space, so we’d recommend having a shed, greenhouse, converted garage or similar fully heated if you’re keeping a population of breeding adults.

Breeding will occur naturally during the hottest months of the year, which in the wild would be May to August. Head wagging is the first sign of courtship and then the male will mount the female. Unlike Mediterranean Tortoises, Red Foot Tortoises are very peaceful. There’s no ramming, biting or attacking. Mating is very peaceful without injury. If the female isn’t interested, she’ll just walk away and the male won’t attempt to force the issue. In the wild, egg laying would occur between October and March, but this may vary based on your temperatures.

You’ll need to provide a very deep – at least 20cm – area of substrate for digging in. This can be a soil, peat and mulch mix with some sand mixed in for stability. Clutch sizes average around five eggs, but can be from three up to ten or more. You’ll need to carefully monitor her behaviour so you can remove the eggs once laid into an incubator.

Incubation for Red Foot Tortoise eggs can be challenging. You should incubate them buried in the mix they are laid in, at approximately 29C and 100% humidity. Hatching dates are variable, but they should hatch after 120-140 days. There is a well known phenomenon among Red Foot Tortoise breeders of hatchlings that die shortly after hatching; this is attributed to the health of the adults, and the food they’re immediately fed on, but still remains a bit of a mystery. Buying hatchlings that are approximately 1 year old from a breeder or shop puts them well past the dangerous stage and gives you an excellent chance of getting a healthy tortoise.

If you’re intending to breed, keeping the adults in the absolute optimum conditions with the very best diet is very important.

Red Foot Tortoises make a great pet as long as you have space to house them. This gregarious, intelligent species will provide endless entertainment and education. I hope that this Red Foot Tortoise Caresheet has provided all the information you need to know, but if there’s anything you have a question about just drop it in the comments, leave us an email or contact us on Facebook! We provide free advice on all species of reptiles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.