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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


South America boasts four species of terrestrial chelonians, which all belong to the subgenus "Chelonoidis". The largest one is the fully protected Giant Tortoise of the Galapagos (Geochelone elephantopus); the other three have been regularly imported into Britain. They are :

The Chaco Tortoise (Geochelone chilensis)

The Red-footed Tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria)

The Yellow-footed Tortoise (Geochelone denticulata)

THE CHACO TORTOISE (Geochelone chilensis)

HABITAT: Desert and deciduous dry forest with considerable seasonal fluctuation. 

RANGE: From Central Argentina up to Paraguay, but in spite of its name, not including Chile.

FEATURES: The Chaco Tortoise is the smallest of the three mainland South American tortoises. It has a low, oval and rather thin carapace which has no indentation. The supracaudal is undivided and there are serrated shell margins. The nuchal scute is absent. The limb scales are large and pointed with a patch of enlarged scales or even small spurs on the thighs. Its body length is about 20cm. It has a relatively large head and the colouration is overall ochre-yellow or yellow-brown. Juveniles may display darker scute edges. One to four elongated eggs are laid between November and early March. Hatching may take up to a year. 

FEEDING: Native: Its natural diet consists of fruits, cacti and grasses.
Captive: In captivity the animals learn to eat most fruits and vegetables. 


Because of the seasonal fluctuations in its own habitat the animal becomes largely inactive during the colder months, remaining in shallow burrows in the ground. In captivity a few weeks "rest" are not uncommon, although a full scale hibernation should be avoided. Although reasonably hardy the animal cannot be left to fend for itself in an English garden. Only during warm summer weather should it be put outside; the rest of the time it should have access to a roomy vivarium or heated greenhouse with plenty of cover. Preferred temperature: 68-82°F, (20-28 degrees Celsius). 

THE RED-FOOTED TORTOISE (Geochelone carbonaria)

HABITAT: Relatively open savanna vegetation with bordering dry forest, but also in dense humid forests and rain forests.

RANGE: The range of the Red-footed Tortoise covers almost the entire tropical lowlands of South America and includes Panama and Colombia, Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, N.E. Peru and Bolivia. It can be found in Venezuela, Guyana and Surinam and has been introduced onto most of the West Indian islands. 

FEATURES: The Red-footed Tortoise is also called the Redleg Tortoise or the Savanna Tortoise. It has large yellow head scales and orange-red scales on the limbs and tail. It has a thick carapace of a high narrow shape with parallel or concave sides. Young animals have dentate carapace margins. The nuchal scute is absent, the supracaudal undivided. Colouration is from very dark brown to black; the central parts of the laminae are yellowish. It has yellow margins on the head and lower jaw and a horizontal bar behind the eye. Maturity is reached at about 15 years of age or when the animal is about 25-30 cm in length. In captivity,under optimum conditions, maturity may be reached earlier. Adults can reach a maximum length of 45cm and may weigh up to 30lbs. Mature animals have a well defined mid carapace constriction (a "waist"). The animals were and still are a popular food source. In courtship males produce jerking movements of the neck, away from and back to mid-position, and produce strange clucking noises when mating. Clutches are laid from July to September and vary from 5-13 eggs. Nests are dug or the eggs are merely deposited in leaf litter. Hatching, under high humidity conditions, takes about 4 months. 

FEEDING: Native: Whatever is available in their natural habitat.
Captive: These tortoises eat the largest variety of foods of seemingly any other tortoise. All fruits and vegetables, both fresh, cooked, tinned or de-frosted, soaked dog and cat pellets. In particular exotic fruits should be tried like melon, watermelon, peach, grapes, apricots, orange, papaya, cantaloupe. They readily accept apples, pears and plums in their diet. Try them on lettuce, cress, cucumber, carrot (grated or cooked), corn on the cob, clover, dandelion. Feeding will take place at any time of the day or night if light is provided and heat and water are available. 


Redlegs usually come from areas with high humidity and dehydrate rapidly. They need constant access to drinking water and a warm bath every other day to help eliminate waste material. Immediately upon acquisition make sure of sufficient water intake and feed sparingly until the digestive system has been stabilised. Although reasonably hardy,the animals must not be hibernated but overwintered in a roomy vivarium at 80-85°F(28-30 degrees Celsius). In summer they can be kept outdoors during warm weather, but temperatures should not go below 65°F (18 degrees Celsius) as then the digestive system may suffer or respiratory ailments may occur. A heatlamp should be provided. 

THE YELLOW-FOOTED TORTOISE (Geochelone denticulata

THE YELLOW-FOOTED TORTOISE (Geochelone denticulata

Although the habitat of the Yellow-footed Tortoise is restricted to rainforest and the Red-footed Tortoise prefers drier habitats, the two species co-exist in those areas of rainforest which are relatively close to drier forest and open savanna.

RANGE: Like the Red-footed Tortoise the range of the Yellow-footed Tortoise covers almost the entire tropical lowlands of South America, but does not extend west of the Andes. The animals occur east of the Andes from Columbia and Venuzuela to Bolivia and Brazil; also in Trinidad.

The Yellow-footed Tortoise is also called the Forest Tortoise. It is somewhat larger than the Red-footed Tortoise with a mean carapace length of about 40cm, although adults of 70cm have been recorded. It has yellow scales on the limbs and tail; there is no mid-waist. The carapace is medium-dark brown with scutes becoming gradually lighter towards the centre. Like the Red- footed Tortoise the animals are a popular food source and have suffered from over-collection from the trade as well as habitat destruction. In courtship the male makes sudden sweeping movements to one side (normally the side of the challenger). Practically all the information given on the Red-footed Tortoise regarding egg laying, hatching, feeding and husbandry in captivity applies to the Yellow-footed Tortoise.