The red foot tortoise is a species that is native to South America, and are closely related to yellow foot tortoises which live in the same area. They grow to be an average of 12 inches long from the front of their shell to the back, but they are known to reach 16 inches. Their carapace, or the top of their shell, is mostly black with a patch of lighter red-orange coloration in the middle of each scute. Their legs, tail, and head all are dark in color as well with scales that contain red, orange, and yellow pigment. They live in a variety of habitats ranging from dry savannah to forests around the Amazon Basin. They are very common in the pet trade, and due to this they have been collected to the point of vulnerability of extinction.
Their diet is just as variable as their habitat. They are omnivorous tortoises and their diet consists of an assortment of plants, grasses, flowers, fungi, carrion, invertebrate, and many fruits when they are available. Common fruits that are consumed in the wild are cacti, figs, bromeliad fruit, and more. The tortoises will eat the entire fruit and seeds which make them super important in the seed dispersal of many plants since the plant will grow wherever the seeds are excreted! Their diet usually changes seasonally base don availability of food resources. In the wet season it has been found to consist of 70% fruit, 25% leaves and shoots, and the remaining diet was fungi and carrion. In the dry season fruit is reduced to 40% of the diet, 23% of the diet is flowers, 16% is fresh leaves and shoots, and the remaining percentage has been found to be fungi and carrion.
In The Pet Trade
The red foot tortoise is considered vulnerable and is listed in CITES Appendix II which restricts international trade but does not restrict movement within the country and so many are still being smuggled in large numbers. There is conservation occurring within parks and refuges as well as captive breeding programs, but the tortoises are still exported in large numbers as pets and food – from 200 to 2005 there were over 35,000 exported.
In the United States red foot tortoises are bred on a large scale, especially in southern states where they can be housed outside for most of the year. As babies they are relatively inexpensive at approximately $80 each. They are readily available in pet stores, reptile expos, and directly from breeders. Hatchlings begin at roughly 2 inches and grow to be around 12 inches in length over the next 10 years of life. The life span of a tortoise varies depending on the quality of care it receives, but most can live to be over 50 years old in the wild – in captivity their life expectancy is much higher due to no threat of predation. A full-grown adult should be kept in a rather large enclosure – 2 ft x 6 ft is the recommended size for an adult red foot.
The long lives and need for a relatively large enclosure mean that red foots are likely a pet that will be re-homed or passed on to children as time passes. However, this is not always the case and tortoise owners can be left with an unwanted pet. In Florida, and likely other southern states, we have seen an epidemic of released pets. Given the year-round warm climate in Florida we often see release exotic pets. Red foot tortoises are on the list of pets found released (or escaped) throughout Florida. From 2007 to 2017 there are 25 cases of found red foot tortoises in Florida. All of these tortoises at one point in time were a personal pet, and many of them had been released in rural sites near Gopher tortoise burrows. This selection of gopher tortoise burrow as a release site is potentially a sign that the red foot tortoise was likely released by a person. Most people, when they have pets that are unwanted or they cannot care for will put their pet in a place where they think they will be safe, and while a Gopher tortoise burrow seems like a great choice it is not. All unwanted pets should be taken to shelters, pet stores, or advertised a “free to a good home” in an attempt to keep it in captivity. Released tortoises can spread disease to native turtles and tortoises which could be devastating to native populations. Not all released pets are lucky, and they will often wander until they reach a road and are at the mercy of vehicular traffic.
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Ferrets and Friends, LLC has four writers bringing you information on a variety of topics from pets to wildlife, education to conservation, and from new developments in our business to information about our industry. Learn something new each week!