Yellow foot tortoise care

The yellow-footed tortoise is a tropical tortoise, known scientifically as geochelone denticulata. It is native to the rainforests of South America and is found in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana and Venezuela. It has also been introduced onto some Carribbean islands. Other names include the forest tortoise, the South American tortoise and the Brazilian Giant tortoise, though “giant” is a bit of an exaggeration; the biggest specimens are 28 inches long, but 14-20 inches is typical. Males are a bit bigger than females.

Yellow-footed tortoises are fairly easy to identify, though they are sometimes mixed up with their close cousins the red-footed tortoise. The obvious way to distinguish the two is in the name: one should have yellow feet and the other red, but life ain’t that simple, and these marking vary too much between individuals to be a good identifying characteristic. The best trick I know to distinguish the two is to look at the marking under the chin. Chelonia.org have good pictures illustrating this method of identification here.

Yellow-footed tortoises will typically (but not always) have a yellow mark behind each eye and several yellow scales around the head and legs. Each scute (patch of the shell) is black around the edges and yellow in the middle. If you pick up a male and look at its underbelly (or plastron), it has an unusually concave shape, which the females do not share.

This tortoise shows up in several different kinds of landscape in South America, including rainforests, dry forests, and some grasslands. This has led to debate about what the native, evolutionary habitat of the tortoise is. Personally, I think it’s pretty clear that it is adapted to a rainforest world – it has large eyes that see well in shaded conditions, long legs that can step over obstacles, and thrives best on a diet including fallen leaves and fruit. Like all tropical tortoises, the yellow-footed tortoise is an omnivore and does not hibernate.

The yellow-footed tortoise is listed as an endangered species, and efforts are underway to preserve the wild populations. For this reason, be sure the one you are getting has not been illicitly caught in the wild, but has been bred in captivity. Captive-bred animals are usually healthier anyway, as those caught in the wild have often been shipped in crowded and stressful conditions and have all kinds of nasty infections and parasites.

When kept well in captivity, a yellow-footed tortoise can be expected to live about 50-60 years.

Food

Imagine you are a tortoise loping through the humid forests of South America. All around you is the buzz and chatter of insect and bird life. The ground is covered with fallen leaves, fallen fruit, and as you crawl over it, it too crawls under you, practically alive with insect life. Termites’ nests, anthills, earthworms, beetles and creepy-crawlies are everywhere. This is a place of biological abundance, and you are never short on food.

In the rainforest, no matter what time of year it is, there is always some fruit tree coming into season and dropping its bounty into the tortoise’s path. So of course, as a tortoise-keeper, you will need to provide fruit as a big component of your pet’s diet. Tropical fruits such as pineapple, guava and papaya are best, but temperature fruits like figs, apples and strawberries are perfectly alright as well. Any type of melon is fine too. As always, variety is the best and safest strategy.

Also freely available on the forest floor is a lot of leaf litter and some plants like ferns and grasses. Though yellow-footed tortoises are not exactly a grazing species like the African sulcata tortoise, grass can form a small part of their diet. Their digestive system can handle limited quantities of the silica that grasses and ferns contain, so the bulk of the plant-based part of their diet should be lettuces, dandelion, flowers and clover.

They are omnivorous, and need to be given a certain amout of meat or other animal products if they are to develop properly and maintain good health. Insects such as ants and termites can be given, but an easier thing to obtain is ordinary earthworms. They love earthworms. Prawns and mice (available in reptile food) are great for their meat-needs. Some keepers feed them cat food; I am not entirely comfortable with this, as one never really knows what is in it, but it is probably ok, provided that intake is lilmited to an ounce once a week, and that the cat food used is a low-fat variety. In general, the animal-derived foods given to yellow-footed tortoises should be rich and protein and relatively low in fat.

Another good source of low-fat protein for them is mushrooms. Yellow-footed tortoises devour mushrooms with relish. They can be given raw, again in quantities limited to about an ounce a week in total. If you feed them a lot of mushrooms you feed them, you should reduce the amount of meat to balance the protein levels in their diet. Ordinary button mushrooms are alright, but are fairly poor in nutrition; nearly any other kind of mushroom is better, like oyster mushrooms, Turkey Tail, or whatever is available locally. (Japanese or Chinese food stores are a good place to look.)

As for commercial foods, I believe many of them are very badly formulated. However, Zoo Med forest tortoise food is a good match for their natural diet, as is Mazuri tortoise food. I would warn against overreliance on such off-the-shelf foods, though; use them as part of a varied dietary approach.

Like all tortoises, they don’t build and maintain that big shell without using up quite a bit of calcium. As discussed in our article on tortoise nutrition, they should be given a calcium supplement, either calcium carbonate powder sprinkled on their food twice a week or a cuttlebone left in their pen.

Zooming out to look at the big picture, the best diet for a yellow-footed tortoise should consist of roughly 40-70% fruit, 30-45% greens and 10-20% meat and mushrooms.

Water

As mentioned above, the natural habitat of the yellow-footed tortoise is a very humid and wet one. In the rainforest, there are plenty of puddles and streams for them to soak in, and they do show a particular fondness for having baths, moreso than most other tortoises.

Their wet environment means that they never been put under any evolutionary pressure to develop the moisure-saving metabolic tricks of an arid-climate tortoise like the Horsfield’s tortoise. When they are exposed to any sort of lack of water, they are not well-equipped to deal with it. Dehydration is a serious risk with this species, and actually quite a common cause of death among domestic tortoises.

Always make sure your tortoise has a tray of water to drink from and soak in as much as it wants. See our article on tortoise housing for advice on how to build one into an indoor enclosure. You should also provide a water-tray in the outdoor enclosure. Make sure the tray cannot be flipped over.

Housing

The yellow-footed tortoise is a fairly big tortoise and naturally it requires a lot more room than most other species. Anyone thinking of getting a yellow-footed tortoise needs to make damn sure they have enough room to house it adequately. If you don’t live in a house where you can set aside at least 2.5m2 for your pet tortoise’s exclusive use, get a smaller species. In addition to the indoor enclosure, you need to have an outdoor enclosure where you can move it in warmer weather. Keeping yellow-foots indoors all the time is just not adequate.

A big tortoise table or a homemade wooden pen is a must. Details on how to construct both indoor and outdoor habitats appropriate for yellow-foots can be found in our article on tortoise housing.

Yellow-footed tortoises do not burrow deeply or climb, so you do not have to take some of the elaborate precautions necessitated by chelonian escapologists like the Horsfield’s tortoise.

Little sunlight penetrates through the canopy to the rainforest floor, so this species does not need large amounts of sunlight and is not especially fond of basking. For the sake of providing microclimates, though, you should still put a heat bulb at one end of the enclosure. A 100W desk lamp is most appropriate for this purpose. The temperature under the heat bulb should be 32°C.

They also need sunlight or UV light to help them synthesize vitamin D. Some keepers manage to supply this just with natural light, but I feel it is safer to use a full-spectrum bulb. See here for advice on what type of bulbs to use.

Temperature is also very important to keep an eye on. Yellow-footed tortoises have died many times because their owner didn’t ensure they would be warm overnight. In their natural habitat, yellow-footed tortoises would never experience temperatures below 16°C. Ordinary room temperature is fine for them, but you need to make sure temperature doesn’t drop too much at night. Don’t just assume that your room will stay above this; use a max-min thermometer to check. You may be surprised how cold it gets in the middle of the night and frostbite is a serious concern.

At the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to let your room get above 35°C either. If you live in a climate where temperatures get that high, make sure you have your air-conditioning set to come on before it gets too hot.

Humidity is perhaps the trickest variable to get right, and the one where new keepers make the most mistakes. A humidity of 80-90% is ideal for this tortoise; too high and you run the risk of upper repsiratory tracy infections and shell rot, too low and dehydration is a threat. This makes it absolutely essential to buy a hygrometer to measure humidity, or ideally a humidistat.

The humidity of the enclosure will be determined mostly by your choice of substrate. A good substrate to use for yellow-foots is compost mixed with play sand. Experiment and find the ratio that best keeps humidity between 80% and 90%. Optionally, a layer of spaghnum moss may be placed on top. Cypress mulch can also work well as a substrate, provided it is organic. With any substrate, you will need to spray it with water occasionally to keep the moisture levels up.

The last thing to consider is the layout of the habitat. This is more of an art than a science. The rainforest habitat of yellow-foots seems to have caused them to evolve a psychological preference for a busy, cluttered space with lots of logs, leaves, rocks and toys rather than empty space. My advice is to try out furnishing the enclosure with different things. If you keep your eyes open, your tortoise’s reaction will tell you whether it like them or not.

Mating

Yellow-footed tortoises reach sexual maturity at around 7-9 years of age. Some keepers report peaks in mating activity from July to September, though many find it occurs all year around.

When passions run high in a male, he will find the nearest tortoise and make a distinctive lateral, sweeping head movement back and forth. If the other tortoise is a male, he will respond with a similar movement and the two will fight for dominance, and hence mating rights. If the other tortoise is a female, the head movements are followed by the male trying to mount her. (These head movements are another way of telling yellow-footed tortoises from red-footed ones; red-footed tortoises jerk the head around sharply, while yellow-footed ones use a broader, more swaying motion.)

The males do fight each other quite aggressively for mating rites. Serious injuries are rare, but cuts and scrapes are virtually guaranteed. So during mating season, check your tortoises for wounds and wash, dress and disinfect them daily.

You need to prepare somewhere for the female to lay her eggs. This is described in the ‘Breeding’ section of our article on red-footed tortoises; the same rules apply to yellow-foots.

The number of eggs in the clutch can vary from 6 to 12, depending mostly on the size of the female. When the eggs are laid, retreive them and place them in an incubator at 29°C for 100-120 days.

Health problems

I advise everyone, before they even buy their tortoise, to find a vet who is competent to deal with tortoises. Many vets are used to only cats and dogs, and have no experience with tortoises, so don’t be shy to shop around and make sure you are dealing with the best vet in your area. To get even more specific, it is best to find a vet who knows about tropical tortoises; Mediterranean tortoises are more common pets, and have quite different metabolisms, requirements and environments from tropical ones, so your vet will need different training. A good idea is to call your local zoo and ask to speak to their tortoise-man about good vets in the area.

One of the most common health issues with yellow-footed tortoises is respiratory problems precipitated by cold or soggy conditions. The main symptoms are puffy eyes and a runny nose.

Many yellow-footed tortoises that are sold, especially wild-caught ones, or ones bred in semi-wild conditions in South America, come with unwelcome hitchhikers – intestinal parasites. When you first get your tortoise, take them to your vet to get checked. There are some good, well-tolerated medications that can treat parasite infections well. One word of warning: Ivermectin, commonly used to treat parasite infections in other animals, is lethal to tortoises. Your vet should know this, but if he doesn’t, slap him.