Red-footed and yellow-footed tortoises (sometimes spelled as “redfoot” and “yellowfoot” tortoises), are locally known as “red foot” and “yellow foot” tortoises, respectively. These medium-sized South American tortoises look similar, but have many differences aside from the color of their legs.
Both tortoises are easy to care for since the Philippine climate is similar to that of their natural habitat, though some folks say that the yellow foot tortoise isn’t as hardy as its red-footed cousin, or as friendly.
Another difference is that yellow foot tortoises tend to have larger females, while red foot tortoises have larger males. Shell-wise, yellow foot tortoises have wider and rounder shells compared to the red foot’s more elongated ones. Yellow foot tortoises also have longer prefrontal scales. These are the two long scales near their noses. Both tortoises can grow over a foot long, with yellow foot tortoises growing as long as 40 centimeters or cm (in contrast to the red foot’s 30 cm), making it the world’s sixth largest tortoise.
Animal Scene’s Yvette Tan recently talked to Jimi Lim, one of the most respected local authorities on tortoises, about the two unique creatures.
WHAT MAKES THE RED FOOT AND YELLOW FOOT TORTOISES UNIQUE?
For most tortoise keepers and hobbyists alike, red foot and yellow foot tortoises have been among their favorites to keep as pets due to their medium size. They are easy to raise in private homes, or even farms. Both tortoises are easy to domesticate and feed, which I believe makes them unique.
CAN YOU GIVE US A BASIC INTRODUCTION TO THE RED FOOT AND YELLOW FOOT TORTOISES AND HOW THEY CAME TO BE IN THE PHILIPPINES? HOW POPULAR IS IT AMONG LOCAL TURTLE AFICIONADOS?
Both yellow foot and red foot can be found within South America. They both prefer dry forests or rainforests as their habitat.
The yellow foot is also known as the “Brazilian Giant Tortoise.” Its head is small and longer than it is wide. Its upper jaw has three tooth-like points. It has large black eyes with a tympanum (external hearing apparatus common to mammals, birds, and reptiles) behind each eye. The skin of the head and limbs is black, with yellow to orange scales on top and around the eye and ear. The forelimbs have five claws, and are long and slightly flattened.
Red-footed tortoises show sex, regional, and individual variations in color, shell shape, and minor anatomical characteristics. Adult carapaces are generally an elongated oval with sides that are nearly parallel, although the sides of males may curve inwards. They are fairly highly domed and smooth, with a rather flat back are black or dark brown with a pale yellow areole in the center.
In the last decade, there were a lot of importation of the red foot and yellow foot tortoises in the country and numerous hobbyists have been breeding them, increasing the popularity within the Philippines. I would say next to the Sulcata, red foot and yellow foot tortoises are the next most sought after by local hobbyists.
HOW BIG CAN YOU EXPECT THESE TORTOISES TO GROW, HOW LONG ARE THEIR LIFESPANS, AND WHAT OTHER BASICS SHOULD THOSE INTERESTED IN THEM NEED TO KNOW?
Red foot tortoises are medium-sized tortoises that generally average 30 cm (12 inches or in) as adults, but can reach over 40 cm (16 in). There are accounts that it can live for 30 years or more in captivity.
Yellow foot tortoises have an average length of 40 cm (15.75 in), with the largest known specimen clocking in at 94 cm (37 in). Its average lifespan may vary from 15 to 20 years.
Both eat many kinds of leaves, but they can be fed shredded carrots, worms, and insects, as they are omnivorous in the wild.
Tortoise keepers should practice proper hygiene, such as washing their hands after handling the animals or their waste material. Dogs, even well-behaved dogs, often attack or chew on tortoises, so great care must be taken if they are around.
WAS IT DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO RAISE A RED FOOT AND YELLOW FOOT TORTOISE?
It’s very easy to raise red foot and yellow foot tortoises here in our country because they are suitable to our tropical climate, which is the same as their natural habitat. Their food is also readily available in our country. Things I have learned in breeding red foot and yellow foot tortoises is the different diet and care to be extended to their hatchlings. Initially, we had a hard time keeping the hatchlings alive. However, through experience, it’s now easy for us as we have already made the necessary adjustments.
DO THEIR CARE REQUIREMENTS VARY FROM OTHER TORTOISES?
Being omnivores, both tortoises eat a variety of food in the wild. They especially seek out food sources high in calcium. But in captivity, food is readily available in our country, so I don’t see any problem.
You don’t need a big space for them to exercise. They only require enough space for them to roam around. They don’t need special habitats since they are tropical tortoises. You may put them in the garden in the daytime and place them indoors at night for safety reasons.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A HEALTHY RED FOOT OR YELLOW FOOT TORTOISE? CONVERSELY, WHAT SIGNS SHOULD KEEPERS LOOK OUT FOR THAT INDICATE WHEN IT IS SICK? WHAT ARE ITS COMMON HEALTH PROBLEMS THAT KEEPERS SHOULD WATCH OUT FOR?
You can tell if they are healthy if they are very active and agile. Their eyes should be bright and shiny. On the other hand, if they’re sick, you can observe them being listless and their eyes are sunken. Look at their skin; if it’s wrinkled, it means they’re suffering from dehydration. The most common health problems that hobbyists caring for them should watch out for are colds and internal parasites.
ARE THERE MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE RED FOOT AND YELLOW FOOT TORTOISES THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO CORRECT AMONG THOSE WHO HAVE HEARD OF IT BUT WHO DO NOT KNOW IT WELL?
I’m not aware if there are such misconceptions. They are quite different from other tortoises. However, some keepers have a hard time determining which is the yellow foot or red foot from each other, but an experienced hobbyist can easily figure this out.
Regarding whether they are very expensive, Sulcata tortoises are more expensive than red foot and yellow foot tortoises. Normally, male red foot tortoises are difficult to find, I assume, due to their incubation temperature. Eggs laid in higher temperatures will produce females, while eggs laid in lower temperatures will produce males. Their sex is determined by incubation temperature.
WHO WOULD A RED FOOT OR YELLOW FOOT TORTOISE MAKE IDEAL PETS FOR? WHAT ARE SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER?
All tortoises carry salmonella bacteria and can be extremely harmful to babies and young ones. I would suggest that they make ideal pets for adults only.
Can humans interact with these tortoises, or are they the “look and admire but don’t touch” type of pet? Are they delicate?
Yes, you can interact with these tortoises. Once they get used to their surroundings and when they feel secure with their owner, they can be tamed and will approach you once they see you coming. They make good household pets. They are not delicate and in fact are very hardy.
HOW MUCH OF A COMMITMENT DOES IT TAKE TO KEEP THE RED FOOT AND YELLOW FOOT TORTOISE, AND WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE WHO IS KEEPING THEM FOR THE FIRST TIME?
For those staying in condos, I should remind you that these tortoises do grow and you can’t keep them in a terrarium forever. They need sunlight once in a while. Also, unlike other tortoises, these tortoises need fruits as part of their diet.
Are there any risks involved in keeping the red foot and yellow foot tortoises? If so then what is your advice on how to best avoid or lessen these risks? (For example, do they bite? Do their shells crack during mating, necessitating close supervision?)
They don’t bite intentionally and they are not aggressive like other reptiles. But if you’re feeding them with your hand, you better watch out. They might accidentally bite you.
WHAT KIND OF HABITAT DO THEY NEED? WILL THEY NEED SUBSTRATE? HOW ABOUT THEIR DIET?
In the wild, their natural habitat is a tropical climate. For babies, you may use newspaper as substrate. It’s cheaper and easier to clean. I would recommend you raise adults in the garden.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s May 2017 issue.